ANTHEMS (Part 3 of 4)

Continued from Do You See?

“Royal Infirmary”

“A Life (1895-1915)”

“Artists’ Rifles”

The extent of World War I’s impact in the British popular mind is not something I could spell out completely — I haven’t grown up potentially surrounded by it as living or preserved history — but in reading Tommy, I found myself wanting to listen to Piano Magic’s Artists’ Rifles, something I hadn’t actually listened to in a long while. I vaguely remember people feeling disappointed by it — I had only heard it the once — but the cover art, at least, had always remained powerful with me, stone carvings from a WWI monument worn by pollution and time. The only song that was actually addressing the war as such was the title track, but that in turn made me think of two other songs that either directly or indirectly touched on the same general subject, from Mark Hollis’s one (and presumably final, if all indications stay the same) solo album and from what appears to be the great ‘lost’ Durutti album Circuses and Bread, which for some reason was never rereleased in the mid-nineties with all the other albums (anyone know why? please post in comments, thanks).

Admittedly the Durutti song is the most tenuous of the bunch in terms of a specific connection to WWI. “Royal Infirmary,” like so many other Durutti compositions, is strictly an instrumental. Notably, though, it’s one of Vini Reilly’s non-guitar compositions, as well as being one of his most minimal efforts, consisting only of piano, brief saxophone parts and sound effects. Namely guns, not handguns but cannon and artillery, irregularly firing off in the background behind the piano, not overwhelming the melody but hardly muted either. The effect is one of suggestion and it could just as easily be, say, something from the Crimean War (or the Napoleonic?) on the one hand or from WWII on the other, but the sense rather is one of a basic but unresolved tension between beauty and ugliness looming almost just over the horizon, something semi-permanent, a base hospital not too far away from the front lines, never moving and never really having to move. Holmes speaks of the hospitals and their staff members in Tommy as part of his overall portrait of life on the lines, and how, quite understandably, so many British soldiers wounded and recovering saw them as heaven on earth. But also they were the places where many went to die, saved from battle but too deeply wounded, and “Royal Infirmary” captures that mood well by resisting being pinned down. Elegiac and relaxing and unsettling, the piano slightly echoed and almost sounding like an old upright player piano, like it was a lost tape from past decades somehow preserved, not slow and dreary but not celebratory either, an anchor, something to hold on to as the guns rage and rage and rage, and bodies are buried, and limbs are removed, and lives are ended in the ripping open of stomachs and the stripping of flesh from the face.

Hollis’ aim at something equally elegaic, more overtly so — the war is not directly mentioned but the span of years and the opening word — “Uniform” — pins things down more clearly. Hollis’s intense Christian mysticism is well-suited for such a subject, as there is a sense of sacrifice that is key to the fragmentary words, forming what is essentially a short poem if anything, ending with the sole actual sentence “And here I lay.” It somehow suggests Jesus’s cry to God on the cross about being forsaken, though not quite of course, more a kind of mute…not even an accusation, an observation, a sense of ending that the title specifically indicates and that therefore does not have to be spelled out further. Whoever the life belonged to is unclear and intentionally not clear, it is Hollis’s war poem as such not for one life but many. Woodwinds and low brass herald the start of the album, slightly discordant perhaps but certainly formal nonetheless — the flowing abstractions of late Talk Talk turned even more flowing with O.rang where Hollis took the specific detail further in his direction. There are near silences, the softest of arrangements…where Reilly aimed to portray something near the frontline, Hollis calls to mind something long after the battle has passed. Maybe a body laying on a ruined battleground, smoke drifting across vomited earth, maybe a grave in years after, clean and well-maintained, one of many. The three note piano melody that forms just enough of a core during the midsection of the song is perhaps almost celebratory, a sense of rising up and away…something that would suit the author of “Ascension Day.”

Piano Magic have perhaps the least successful of the three songs I focused in on, or maybe in fact it’s the least comfortable. By drawing a direct parallel between those then and those now — “Young men, as us” (just as easily suggesting a personalized connection to Ian Curtis, actually, though the invocation of the dates of the war force a more straightforward reading) — as the narrator looks through the remnants and remains of a long-dead life (or lives) — letters, souvenirs, “memories” — the sense is less of direct comparison between situations, maybe, as it is simply flat-out acknowledgment that a connection could be made between two different groups at two different historical moments, the more recent facing a hopefully different fate. The Cocteaued acoustic guitar line and Glen Johnson’s breathy, reverbed singing is, though, all right without tugging at the heartstrings so much — the martial drums that kick in after the first verse perhaps simply too obvious a touch. It’s a love song to a lost generation of sorts, the dream of a dead army of young poets, of indeed artists. A charming conceit but obviously not the reality of the situation, but can the conceit hold for the song? Frankly it’s almost halfway to some sort of hyperdramatic emo rather than anything else, I could seen Mr. Oberst cooking up something similar should he so desire, if he hasn’t already. It all gets somewhat richer as heads towards the conclusion of the song, after all the singing is done, works well enough the more it goes on, a blend of textures and tones and clarinet. It’s…something, but it lacks Reilly’s gift of on-point simplicity or Hollis’s aspirational touch.

But it’s still something, it’s a response to what happened through years and years of filters and cliches and approaches and ways to view and review something. And what might happen in future years from now?

(Part four will conclude back on The Brown Wedge)