I have one of those brains that tends to work on the basis of “if it’s a bit strange, then I like it”. This record (and, indeed, band) are very strange, and I like them a lot. No great surprise there, then. To be merely a bit strange in the context of this record would be to mention that this is one of two albums in my Top 50 that have been recorded on boats. To be more specifically odd, this particular one was recorded on a converted Mystery Ship that spent much of the Second World War pottering about in the North Atlantic disguised as a Merchant Vessel, luring and subsequently attacking U-Boats. Recording in this floating representation of nothing being what it seems has has quite the effect on this group of eclectic folk-pop magpies, and the end result is something rather bizarre, disquieting and brilliant.
This strangeness begins before a note is played. the cover depicts a young girl in a 1970s bedroom, a couple of feet above her bed and shrieking. For those who don’t know the origin of the photo, she may as well be bouncing about to poster-boy David Soul’s new record. Instead, she is being thrown across the room by what became known as the Enfield Poltergeist and she is utterly terrified. Spooky goings-on and weird dreams are the order of the day, with many of the songs here hinting at the supernatural and general ‘other’-ness either through direct references or by way of giving parts of the songs or their associated interludes that “out of the corner of the eye” unsettling quality.
Continuing their fondness for all things found and read, Erland and the Carnival follow last year’s wonderful debut with a whole new gathering of borrowed ideas and leftfield influences. Anyone watching the BBC’s Final Score of a Saturday afternoon will now be familiar with the strains of Map of an Englishman that plays as the programme switches from the digital red button to BBC1, a song that is directly based upon crossdressing Turner Prizewinning artists Grayson Perry’s illustration of his own psyche as geography. And that’s one of the more straightforward links – East and West makes mention of Sigmund Freud’s dream of witnessing his own dissection; elsewhere, Dream of the Rood is a 7th-Century poem in which the narrator has a conversation with the cross on which Christ was crucified. And there’s even a bit of room for Bernard Hurmann to appear as well. All in a day’s work for a group who managed to riff on both Leonard Cohen and William Blake on their debut.
This dreamishness is carried through Nightingale on the shoulders of a more antique-electronic feel than their predominantly indie-folk of last year. The music tends mostly to sit in the background in order to allow Erland Cooper room to describe what is going on, although this does give the soundtrack licence to add further levels of weirdness for the benefit of the listener. They do let loose in slightly more conventional ways every now and again though, This Night in particular rattling along like an uptempo version of the Smiths, but it’s mostly restrained and unearthly lamenting with an electronic folky-pop backing.
All of this sounds like a bit of a challenge to the casual observer, and it probably is, even though it truly is very catchy in its own way. It’s a challenge that reaps rewards though, and it’d be a shame if Nightingale was overlooked just because it’s cleverer than whoever E&TC’s contemporaries may be, or that it quite happily sits outside the boxes that other bands are far too eager to tick.