The Magnetic Fields: 50 Song Memoir ****
Ryan Adams: Prisoner ****
Alasdair Roberts: Pangs ****
Stephin Merritt, the baritone bard behind The Magnetic Fields, is no stranger to epic works, having penned the self-explanatory triple-volume classic 69 Love Songs in the late 1990s.
His latest magnum opus, 50 Song Memoir, also delivers what it promises on the tin. This five-CD/LP autobiographical odyssey is Merritt’s first (and, he suggests, only) work of non-fiction, offering up 50 witty and wide-ranging vignettes, one for each year of his life at the point he started recording two years ago.
This lo-fi yet sophisticated saga commences with baby Stephin asking the existential questions on opening track Wonder Where I’m From (in the style of a drifter blues) and already fretting about his place in the world (and beyond) aged two on Come Back as a Cockroach.
Along the way, there are dramas about family pets (“we had a cat called Dionysus, every day another crisis”), childhood illnesses and vengeful pledges to bullying classmates, thoughts on growing up in an atheist household, and various rites of passage – school disco, first gig (Jefferson Airplane, since you ask), first band (“we made The Shaggs sound like Yes”), coupled with dire warnings about pursuing a life in music.
New Romantic masterclass/satire How to Play the Synthesizer ushers in a weird, wobbly 1980s period, throughout which Merritt adds to
the tally of instruments, from abacus to Swarmatron, which form the eclectic sonic backdrop to his life. The Day I Finally is a musical theatre number rendered on kitchen utensils, while I’m Sad plumbs the depths of his range and breaks the rhyming dictionary while he’s about it.
Even the seemingly random filler, such as anti-surfing surf song Surfin’ and a closing number about fetishes, maintains the inventive, irreverent standard of this delightful chronicle of a life lived imaginatively, while Merritt’s hangdog drawl is but one facet of his instantly identifiable musical voice.
Ryan Adams may not document his life quite so forensically but he is a master when it comes to capturing heartbreak. His previous album, a gorgeous cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989, mined the melancholy in the songs far more effectively than the original pop product. Following the end of his marriage to singer Mandy Moore, and intimations of the personal nature of his latest songs, some fans have been eagerly anticipating another Heartbreaker.
But Adams is not one for repeating himself, save for his innate talent for turning straightforward roots rock materials into songs which arrive modestly, then won’t leave you alone. There has always been a bit of the junior Springsteen in his style but, on Prisoner, he fully embraces 80s arena rock sonics, retaining the resonance but bypassing the bombast to trigger a joyful nostalgic noise. The ballads To Be Without You and Breakdown in particular are as exquisite as anything he has done, the latter featuring the chiming metallic guitar sound once favoured by his almost namesake Bryan.
Glasgow-based singer/guitarist Alasdair Roberts harks back to a more ancient tradition of austere storytelling with original material which sounds like it has been unearthed from an old family vault and carefully restored to ring down the decades. Pangs features
Roberts in sociable band mode, fronting an electric folk fusion trio with Alex Neilson of Trembling
Bells and Stevie Jones of Sound of
Yell, both of whom bring their jazz, psych folk and math rock backgrounds to bear on the boldly anachronistic arrangements where flute, fiddle and guitar are embellished with stabs of spacey synthesizer.
A New Heaven: Sacred Choral Music ****
The overriding revelation of A New Heaven is the extent to which Biblical Revelation has inspired its anthems and motets. The settings range from the post-Victoriana of William Harris and Edgar Bainton to the more recent Rutter, James MacMillan and others. MacMillan’s Alpha and Omega is an ecstatic opener with wave upon wave of exhortations. The Choir of Queen’s College Oxford, under Owen Rees, capture magnificently its religious theatricality, as they do with the entire programme. There’s the luminescent cosiness of Bainton’s And I saw a new heaven, the spectral mystery that opens Rihard Dubra’s Stetit angelus, the sumptuous appeal of Cecilia McDowall’s I know that my Redeemer liveth, MacMillan’s modern recasting of Harris’ setting of Bring us, O Lord (both anthems are included), the playful rhythms and climactic engineering of Kenneth Leighton’s Alleluia, Amen, and plenty more. A visionary delight.
Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra: Effervescence ****
Alumni of the Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra enrich the ranks of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, which Smith also directs. Here they fuse youthful energy with ensemble discipline in a mix of classic and contemporary material, stating their credentials by fairly shifting Woody Herman’s Apple Honey, with brass fanfaring and no-nonsense solos from Michael Butcher (tenor sax), Liam Shortall (trombone), pianist Fergus McCreadie and, naturally, clarinettist Helena Kay, among others. There’s the swagger of Benny Golson’s Blues March, the delirious rush of Dizzy Gillespie’s Things to Come and the languid stealth of the Shorter-Davis classic Nefertiti. Trumpeter Sean Gibbs contributes his own composition, Tam O’Shanter, the hapless horseman in a guise unknown to any Burns supper, pursued by gutsy blues guitar from Joe Williamson and a reedy crescendo heralding a vigorous sax excursion from Butcher.