My band, Sweet Billy Pilgrim have just released a new album. Semantically speaking, I know that statement is a little naive; it might even sound disingenuous given that music is consumed in so many different ways now. I should amend it to; my band Sweet Billy Pilgrim are disseminating a collection of songs via physical and digital means, and are relaying news of that fact via the mediums of the internet, the radio, sign language, semaphore, morse code, figurative dance and whatever else it might take to get people to listen.
It's a big deal for us. The critical cliche of the 'difficult' third album has been borne out a little by its protracted birth, but in truth this is largely because I had an actual window to look out of this time. I'll explain. Our previous album, Twice Born Men, was made in a shed where the only distractions were the extremes of temperature and the ghostly kamikaze of a thousand pale moths, fatally drawn, twitching dazedly, into my uplighter before they had a chance to think "damn it... sunblock."
Crown & Treaty grew up in a tiny bungalow, cupped in a mossy palm of the archetypal English country garden, where - instead of looking at a blank wooden wall, trying to ignore chilblains and sudden invertebrate death - from my new desk I could stake out a family of squirrels as they flagrantly built their criminal empire, watch my workstation become a through-route on the hourly freight run of laden bumble bees, and witness more pigeon-on-pigeon sexual violence than a man should ever have to see. And so, somewhat inevitably, the workrate slowed to something resembling download times on the Orkney islands.
But something else happened, too. As my view on the world opened up in a literal sense, so the music kind of unfolded its arms and slouched a bit. I'm not suggesting any Dude-esque level of laid-backness - I'm still a suitably uptight control freak with a metabolism that rarely operates at anything less than a notch under 'fight or flight' - but where previous songs would smudge and bleed at the edges; notes refusing to dry as I moved them around in that tiny airless space, the songs on Crown & Treaty demanded the same vividness as that blue sky I could see on a bright May morning: they became open arms to Twice Born Men's clasped hands.
As an aside, I think that the impact of any stylistic leap on a listener will be absorbed somewhat by recognition of the guiding force behind it, but I think that too often in life, we fear straying too far from who we've been, with all the opinions, prejudices and preferences that went with that, so that we feel we can still confidently express who we are, moment-to-moment. I'm beginning to like the idea that these things can be in a constant state of flux. What might be a rivet in the armour of identity for you today, could ping out tomorrow without it all falling apart, surely ? It's just a case of being open to change, and honest about how you feel. Nothing stays the same.
And eventually, that armour will have to come off anyway, even if it's just for a moment. So you can fall in love. Laugh with your children. Or go for a wee.
So, with a little money from a post-Mercury Music Prize nomination publishing deal, I spent a year painstakingly assembling an album I knew would be called Crown & Treaty. I also knew I wanted it to sound like a million dollars, despite costing under a thousand; knew that it would be bolder - a confident slash of primary colour across the canvas. But most importantly of all, I knew that every song would in some way address our ghosts, whose often malevolent, vaporous whisper informs every decision, hope, need and want we could ever know, beyond food and shelter.
I want to believe that we have free will, but history often has other ideas, taking our intentions, bending them out of shape and handing them back to us with a rueful grin, to unintentionally call our own. Experience can reward us with knowledge and power, but somewhere in a corner, the dark stuff still writhes and seethes like something in a terrible nu-metal video, exerting its stealthy influence in long shadows that reach us no matter how many candles we light.
It's these shadows I wanted to identify in the songs; to crack open a metaphorical beer and spend some quality time hanging out with my ghosts, painfully aware that in recognising them and where they came from - be it grief, abuse or merely the baggage of previous generations - with an open heart, I could finally move forward. I just had to crown them all, and then sort out the paperwork.
So that was the title and the theme taken care of. What about the artwork ?
I started by writing an email to David Sylvian, the man responsible for releasing Twice Born Men and for finding the amazing Tacita Dean image that adorned the cover, outlining my ideas for the record, and despite warning me of his incredible lack of time, 15 minutes later he sent me three images by photographer Robert Polidori. The first of the three, as it turned out, was perfect.
Just take a second to look at the man in that portrait. His name is François Achilles Bazaine (1811 - 1888). In his four decades of military service he was a national hero, highly decorated and much-respected, wounded on several occasions due to his insistence on leading his men into battle, rather than pointing them vaguely in its direction from behind the lines. Indeed, he doesn't pose for that portrait from amongst the signifiers of authority and entitlement as so many did. Instead we find him in the field, seemingly pausing for a moment amidst the dust and din of war, his charts spread out, ready to be returned to presently.
But in 1873, after surrendering to the Prussian army after a long and bloody siege, Bazaine was made scapegoat by a nation too proud to face military defeat, and abruptly, the hero became pariah; court-martialled, disgraced and sentenced to death. Eventually, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, but in a final act of defiance he escaped, settling in Madrid where he eventually died, alone and penniless on the 20th of September 1888.
Now look at the whole image. Poor François has been lifted from a crumbling wall and unceremoniously dumped amongst the tangled structural viscera of some early-stage renovation work. We get the sense that his surroundings were once quite grand; walls and panels speaking of better times while resignedly bearing their steady decay. With not so much as a dust sheet to protect him, François' pose now speaks less of dignity than vulnerability in this brutal new context. No one cares what he did or who he was anymore. History becomes - to self-consciously quote my own lyric - just another way to be forgotten.
So, François Achilles Bazaine's voice joins the other ghosts on Crown & Treaty, and I guess if they ask for anything, it's to be acknowledged. Perhaps even to be consulted from time to time. But, believe every whisper, and suddenly we're looking at life through a viewfinder, trying to record the meagre, infinite sweep of achievement instead of being open to the joys of a moment truly lived.
To quote from the same song ('Kracklite', from Crown & Treaty);
Every church I'm building to a god I'll never know. Too soon becomes a kiss kept from her lips.I suspect that kiss is as close to immortality as we can ever hope to get, and sometimes, when sleep evades me, I think I can hear the weeping of ghosts who forgot - in life - to cherish its timeless and present wonder.
(Watch Desperately Seeking Bazaine, a short film detailing our journey into the heart of darkness, searching for his grave in downtown Madrid)
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