It has been over a year since I posted on this blog, a yawning gap that horrifies me. WordPress is suggesting I might like to riff on the keywords ‘toddler, delicious, politics.’ True, my thoughts these days are often split between dinner and Lego. But after a spell consumed by maternity leave and then the ongoing global pandemic, I’m back on the blog to review a really timely, genre-defying album I’ve been listening to, a new project featuring Poet Laureate Simon Armitage, a musical collaboration which foregrounds the spoken word.
Simon Armitage was a big influence on me as a young writer. I remember picking up ‘Zoom’ in an independent bookshop in Chesterfield and hiding away in the corner by the coffee shop to read it from cover to cover, enchanted by the wise-cracking narrators and shrewd observations of life experiences that didn’t seem so alien from my own. His succinct portraits of characters in crisis and his gift for finding surreal but convincing images might seem to make his work well suited for song-writing. But this project isn’t songs exactly, more poetry-meets-melody.
‘Call In The Crash Team’ is a debut album from a group who call themselves L Y R. The band features Simon along with musicians Patrick Pearson and Richard Walters and the music has been described as “poetic passages spoken over the kind of ambient post-rock favoured by Radiohead or Sigur Ros”. I’ve always loved the strange, almost post-industrial melancholy of bands like those. My interest was piqued. Every track on the album is written by Simon from the perspective of a fictional character dealing with different moments of crisis,. Listening to it from the vantage point of what we all keep calling ‘uncertain times’ or ‘unsettled times’ seemed apt.
My own experience of combining poetry and music has been mixed: I’ve worked with a flamenco guitarist, with composers and baroque orchestras and experimental theatre. Often, the melodies and words can feel like strangers at a party, introduced by a well intentioned mutual friend (‘oh, Fred, you MUST meet Helen, you’ll have so much in common…’). The friend departs and there’s an awkward silence, the awful overwhelming sense of expectation. My most successful experiences of musical collaboration have come when I’ve written something independently and then let the musicians interpret it however they wanted – projects like The Singing Glacier or ‘PROPELLOR‘, or my experience of collaborating with Lippy Kid. In short, I like to hand over the poem and leg it.
‘Call In The Crash Team’ foregrounds Simon Armitage’s words and voice, but there’s a sense of genuine dialogue between music and lyrics, haunting refrains emphasising the narrative of each piece. I found it strangely addictive, tracks instantly sticking in my head, becoming peculiar earworms. The album opens with the melodious, ‘The First Time’, a track that walks the delicate line between bittersweet and bitter, a narrator lamenting lost time and dredged-up lost love. The music reminded me of floating on my back in the cavernous swimming pool in Chesterfield, light playing on the white ceiling. The whole album has that underwater feeling to it, a sense of immersion: there are repeated phrases, echoed words, tense rhythms.
‘Call In The Crash Team’ parades a host of troubled characters before us, hitchhikers, cautious lovers, drivers and dreamers. They often seem almost breathless, rendered inarticulate by the sadness of their experience (I imagine the whole album set against a backdrop of austerity) and yet they’re dab hands at sharp one-liners. There are urban myths and terse reflections, much that readers of Armitage’s poetry will be familiar with. The album title is drawn from the lyrics of ‘Zodiac T-shirt’, a dreamy piano track that evokes the hot distance of teenage summers: ‘Zodiac T-shirt, paperclip bracelet, Mercury Rising, call in the crash team’… A standout track is the funny, disconcerting ‘Great Coat’, where upbeat sounds contrast with a slightly menacing, claustrophobic inheritance narrative: ‘turning your shadow into a coat was darkness embodied, a master stroke’… Throughout, the sung words shadow the spoken words, often creating a sense of obsession or fixation, emphasising memorable phrases and lines.
I interviewed Richard from the band about the process behind the album:
The Polaroids that hold us together
Will surely fade away
Like the love that we spoke of forever
On St Swithin’s Day