I don’t like to subscribe to the “of course, I really like their older stuff” school of music appreciation; no matter how genuine or well-intentioned, you can’t help but come across as sounding like a bit of a purist snob. That said, I happily recognise that so often a band’s earliest recordings are among its most vibrant, vital material (who was it once said “you get 21 years to write your first album, 18 months for the next”?), and that there’s nothing quite as exhilarating as opening with a bold statement of intent.
I took this theory to a logical extreme when reflecting on the first three songs of the first album from British Sea Power (yes, them again, sorry to surprise), The Decline Of British Sea Power.
It opens with Men Together Today*, 40 seconds of Gregorian Monk-esque harmonies: however this track is intended, it manages to disarm the listener of pretty much all their pre-conceptions of what this reputed post-punk/indie/art-rock band are supposed to be about.
* this somewhat bizarre video also has Apologies to Insect Life on it – for a much more authentically bizarre video to accompany that song, please see below.
Apologies to Insect Life then takes over, its creeping bass and drums giving way to jagged, self-consciously messy guitars and lyrics which barely tumble out of Yan’s mouth in time before moving on to the next line (and which appear to contemplate Fyodor Dostoyevsky, infection-ridden prostitutes, and cruelty to insects. Naturally).
A discordant squall of noise joins Apologies to Insect Life to Favours In The Beetroot Fields, which, somehow manages to be even more breakneck and breathless than its predecessor. BSP’s periodic allusions to the military are manifest here, with talk of a “little Caesar” taking on the world and breaking all records (the title itself referring to the rumoured extra-curricular activities of soliders serving under Field Marshall Montgomery in the British Army and the local working girls).
Most intriguingly for me is the line “The universe is a record of everything you see and do”, which appeals to the most arty-farty element of my brain, in terms of the nature of ‘reality’, its social construction, and the multiple perceptions thereof (I find myself musing on these issues in a work context quite often, which, on reflection, may explain quite a lot of my ‘professional career’ (ha!) to date). By my reckoning, this is a fair amount of ground to cover in little more than a minute. The song ends in a similar way to its beginning, that is with a squall and a crash, leading to a few precious seconds of respite and relief, before moving on to a more restrained song, and the rest of the album.
In terms of an opening gambit and a declaration of intent, this is pretty heady stuff. Of BSP’s early work, I really like their older material.