On 5 May 2017, I took another step into my fifth decade. The celebrations began with a massive brunch, the centrepiece of which was a ridiculous freakshake, because 2017. Then I met some of my chums in the pub and then had another restaurant meal for dinner. It was great, and I enjoyed myself hugely, but at the time it didn’t feel like a spectacular birthday. 

I’ve now massively revised my opinion, especially compared to this year, when the thrilling festivities consisted of a flat viewing that was eventually cancelled, eating a snack in the West Norwood Crematorium gardens before torrential rain started, and playing Animal Crossing for the rest of my life. Still, that day was itself a considerable improvement on 2020’s birthday, which was dedicated to a job interview followed by a counselling session. I did get the job, but you don’t hear me not complaining. 

To return to the memory of funner birthdays: 2017’s birthday was a corker to be sure, aptly soundtracked by the first At the Drive-in album in 17 years. I missed out on the 2012 reunion tour, but to be honest, I don’t especially regret that, since it was reportedly fraught with tension and ended with another acrimonious split. So the do-over of the do-over tour was itself astonishing, but the accompanying release of Inter Alia felt like some kind of a miracle.

Unsurprisingly, Birth of a Ghost, released the same day, was eclipsed by this news. I felt extremely privileged to get two ORL presents for my birthday and gave this one a metaphorical spin first, since the title reminded me of my favourite Wilco album A Ghost is Born. On the surface, this classical album is a fairly left-field offering, but upon reflection there are lots of orchestral influences across the ORL oeuvre, most notably in the Morricone-influenced movements of Frances the Mute and, tangentially, some of his electronic music. 

Like many people, most of the classical music I recognise is from Looney Tunes. I’m still enough of a big kid to enjoy a huge gong-crash and pop-propirating lyrics about wabbit hunting. But I’m also enough of a downtrodden adult to panic on the unfortunate occasion I hear the part of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons the DWP used for hold music (which they finally stopped last year, thank fuck). If you know what I mean, you probably also have the same atavistic reaction to brown envelopes. Friend, I both see and hear you.

Outside of cartoons and unemployment, I’ve only sporadically engaged with classical music. There was the summer I worked at a strip mall bookstore where the manager insisted we play a constant stream of classical cassettes because he hoped it might class the joint up. I usually stuck to Lots of Liszt on a loop, because I liked the title and because I was lazy. Decades later, I attended one of the 2018 Proms (#44: Debussy, Ravel & Boulanger), a lovely evening with excellent company. And that was pretty much it, until Birth of a Ghost joined my rotation of workday wallpaper music. Like Old Money, I sense there’s a narrative present, one whose emotional arc can be interpreted in many different ways.

The soaring strings and military tattoo-like percussion of “Cactus and Honey” is a cheering, fun way to start off. “Echo Beast” flows into a slightly more wistful version of that song, albeit peppered with peppy cymbals that keep up the momentum. They work as a gentle easing into the narrative, giving you time to assign whichever emotion you’re currently experiencing to the music.

A firmer story starts with the bouncy joy of “A Good Kind of Blue”. I can imagine this scoring a Goonies-like kids’ adventure movie, at the point when the gang have agreed on their plan and set off with a spring in their collective step, the mild peril safely a whole act away. “Nuclear Mysticism” then throws a spanner into the works as the first big problem is inspected, quizzed and confidently assessed.

“September” brings a joyful apex; it’s bouncy and vibrant, evoking a pure playfulness – I enjoy the ass off this brass. It’s still really difficult for me to take regular breaks when working, and with this on in the background, it’s a bit easier to pause for a few minutes to sit back, smile and chill the fuck out.

Most of the time, I usually prolong my mental mini-holiday by taking time to focus on “White Smack Cramps”, an incongruously titled interlude. It doesn’t stand out as a particularly weird title (by ORL standards), but naming something so sweet and gentle something so ugly gives it an almost comical spin. I picture this as a hairline crack in the gang’s defenses, the first minor but significant problem to be conquered.

“An Old Lacquer-Tinged Tomb” swings the story back to cheerfulness, and having sorted out the dust-up, the gang’s brushed themselves off, somewhat chastened and bruised but still alive and still adventuring. “Macro Mutations” throws a discordant shape for yet another wrong turn, another interlude indicating confusion and chaos. This chaos jumps “Through a Glass Darkly”, adjacent to spaghetti western influences hinting at an unresolved darkness. “Thoughts and Ashes” concludes with a reunion scene tinged with bittersweetness as the story is resolved, marking profound changes, sadness from innocence lost, but excitement for the knowledge earned. 

Birth of a Ghost is less than half an hour in total, and when I listen to it, time absolutely races. This may be partly because it’s usually background music and I’m mostly concentrating on other things, but I prefer to think it’s helping me become more mindful during my working day, since it helps me take time out, even if just for a few minutes, to think outside myself. 

Track listing:
Cactus and Honey
Echo Beast
A Good Kind of Blue
Nuclear Mysticism
White Smack Cramps
An Old Lacquer-Tinged Tomb
Macro Mutations
Through a Glass Darkly
Thoughts and Ashes