The first time I heard These New Puritans they were supporting British Sea Power at the Komedia in Brighton. It was a dank January 2008 and I was soon to leave for Wales, having had just about enough of Brighton and certainly more than enough of mediocre gigs in Brighton. And British Sea Power, a band whose debut album I had treasured, had at that time at least, become unpardonably mediocre. At least These New Puritans – while their actual music that night didn’t do a great deal to suggest that they would be anything more than another post-punk band that would briefly create a modest buzz in NME – unmistakably had something about them in terms of presence and style. Something intense and unabashed which left you in no doubt, whether they were the real deal or not, that at the very least they weren’t rock careerists – something to be applauded in itself in those/these benighted times for British indie music.
I came late to their remarkable second album, Hidden, although because of the presence and style that I mention above, I wasn’t entirely surprised to read that they had a made a giant leap forwards. For all that, when I finally did get around to listening to Hidden it’s true to say that I wasn’t prepared for just what a profoundly different record it was going to be – not just different in comparison to Beat Pyramid but to, well, pretty much everything. This is not to say that with its trademark military drums, jazzy rhythms, oboes and choirs that it was either faultless or without precedent. What it was, however, was unique in the sense that a genuine piece of art is unique. It was/is an invented world that you could lose yourself in and if there had been commercial considerations behind the composing of the tracks then that would have to mean that lead singer and songwriter Jack Barnett was living in a parallel universe. And really since the turn of the millennium how many British albums/artists can you describe in those terms? I’m struggling to think of a single one. And yet here was a record by a British band that channeled the same kind of untrammeled artistic integrity that had characterized American records like say, Joanna Newsome’s Ys, or Panda Bear’s Person Pitch.
While that self-same credo led Newsome to take something of a wrong turning with her next record (the sporadically brilliant, needlessly two-and-a-fucking-half-hours long, triple – yes, triple! – LP, Have One On Me), it is clear that the success of Hidden has only cemented Barnett’s artistic convictions and impulses.
Because Field of Reeds is another invented world you can lose yourself in, only one that has been far more successfully realised than Hidden. Speaking about the album to Pitchfork, Barnett described how the three These New Puritans albums to date all differ for him:
With the first album, it felt like there was a bit of a distance between me and the music. It was kind of a construction. On Hidden, the distance closed a bit, it got smaller. With this album, this music, it feels like that gap has closed completely. I’ve lived every second of it.
He’s right because Field of Reeds sounds more dreamt of than written. There are times, indeed, when it sounds so convincingly like the way you imagine that it must have first sounded like inside Barnett’s head, that it fairly takes the breath away. It goes without saying that it requires a rare gift to be able to do that in any art form – let alone in the art form we laughing call the British music scene in 2013 – which is why Field of Reeds is such a special, as a matter of fact deeply important record.
It starts with a found recording Barnett made of a woman singing the Bacharach/David staple ‘This Guys in Love with You’ over stilted piano, interspersed with oboes and cello reminiscent of the quieter moments of Hidden. The woman’s voice is distant like a half-forgotten memory, the refrain of ‘my heart’s racing’ sounding like an ancient, numb lament for lost love and jarringly unlike anything unlike Hal and Burt ever had in mind. Towards the end of the piece a jazzy trumpet – something which will become a staple of the record – comes in, sounding like something out of an early sixties’ British kitchen sink drama, underscored, meanwhile by some decidedly futuristic 80s BBC TV keyboards, evoking children’s TV dramas of the period like The Box of Delights.
Indeed there is a fairytale-like quality to this record, by which I mean to say that Barnett appears to be deliberately trying to create another world for the listener to lose themselves in, in the same way as a child metaphysically goes through the wardrobe along with Peter, Edmund, Susan and Lucy or goes ‘swift’ with Kay Harker in The Box of Delights, ‘when the wolves are running.’
That kitchen sink jazz influence underlines this album’s debt to film and it is no coincidence that Barnett worked with Hans Ek (who wrote the score to the excellent Let the Right One In) on the composition of this work because there is an oddness, as well as a glacial stillness, to this music which often recalls Ek’s work. Indeed there are reviewers who have spoken of this record as being too much like a film score or a piece of contemporary classical music. But while it is very close to these two disciplines, Field of Reeds is a record – and by the way it very much is a record, being divided into three distinct sides, the fourth side of the vinyl containing an etching, and coming in a sumptuous gatefold sleeve – which is more than the sum of its parts. Barnett has made an album that is awash with mystery. An album that, much like all of us, is numb with loss and incomprehension, and lost in an enchanted (sound)world.
These New Puritans will be performing at Festival No.6 on Sunday, September 15th. See the next issue of Wales Arts Review for full coverage of the festival.