Storm Damage (Unmade Road/Caroline)
This is a bit reductive, and I will explain more, but it may be that Ben Watt’s fourth solo album, the third since a return to traditional songwriting after his post-Everything But The Girl explorations of dance/production and label running, can be described by the (seemingly) conflicting elements of one song.
That song, Retreat To Find, contains both musical and lyrical convergence and divergence, which go to the heart of his recent recordings and books.
The ‘70s folk electric guitars and relatively muscular feel of the past two albums is replaced by an almost classic jazz arrangement of bass (Rex Horan coming on like a new Danny Thompson), drums (Evan Jenkins) and piano (Watt, who also plays guitar). It makes for a quieter album, but at times one much more turbulent.
Likewise, though the thick and fluid bass plays - in advance of everything – and the shuffle pattern fills around it like the band in the corner of a rustic pub, you begin to notice that actually there’s electronic sounds poking their noses in unobtrusively.
In fact, across Storm Damage the drum kit is a mix of acoustic and electronic and the piano is sometimes replaced, or augmented by simple line synths. The balance is never tipped their way but their colourings are crucial to the world created, one that moves back and forth across any artificially imposed timelines.
Lyrically, the song seems at first to be a slightly florid declaration of something like disgust with a crumbling edifice of order. “The supplicant stands at the foot of the cross/Seventeen lines of persimmon thread,” it begins, going on to describe how “Daffodils bloom by the churchyard wall/The grounds of the vicarage overgrown … under a long godless summer night.”
So Watt declares “retreat from the ties that bind” and it seems straightforward. But the undercurrent of anger is in fact tied to sadness, deeply reaching sadness, in the blow of a death. The retreat then isn’t from the world exactly but from those blows, to somewhere memory and closeness can be retained. “Here, here in my heart/There is a place/Where I can outface death.”
Modern and old, open and withdrawing, hurt but rebuilding, death and life going on – Retreat To Find is the template for the rest of the songs. And a confirmation that Watt has tapped a rich vein of writing and sonic conceptualising.
As with its predecessors, Hendra and Fever Dream – and Watt’s part memoir/part story of his parents and their complex lives, Romy And Tom - Storm Damage was made in the wake of some wrenching personal upheaval. In this case it is the death of a step-brother.
That’s most clear in Retreat To Find, but solid shadows of others – in relationships now defunct or careers repositioned - are there in the David Sylvian-like atmospheric hum of Knife In The Drawer (“I re-live the last night when you danced at the party/Your t-shirt was stained and your hair was unruly”), the synth-prominent Summer Ghosts (“My folks were just people with their own shit/And god knows there was enough of it/Wrapped up in themselves/Jazz on the shelves”), and the entwined electronic and acoustic of the circular, mesmeric Irene (“Was it something you’d outgrown/Needed something of your own?/I guess, well, everyone’s entitled to a change.”)
Added to this in the surrounds of the writing and recording was the inevitable imposition of a wider world succumbing to the greed of the few and the blinkered adherence to the myths of the greedy by the far too many. These become galvanising elements, though not necessarily to grand revolt but for engagement and commitment, as explained in Figures In The Landscape.
With a punchier, electric band presence and a cooing pop vocal background, this song comes with a rolling forward energy that underscores the internal debate between the too-present/distancing of modern lives (“Everyone’s a karaoke star/We’re living through the blur of the seasons/We’re figures in the landscape”) and the need to be in this, not just near it (“One more day to live through/Take a stand/One more day to live for/Clap your hands”).
Mind you, as already identified, Watt doesn’t strike every note of certainty. If Figures In The Landscape is the voice of the once-and-future activist demanding more from the next generation, the album’s opening song, Balanced On A Wire, is clearer as the voice of a father of three whose youngest are about to fly the coop. “People say live in the moment/But the moment seems so narrow sometimes/People say live in the moment/But the moment looms so large sometimes.”
There’s an understanding here and sources of satisfaction that mean you can believe the joy underpinning a seemingly melancholy, airy piano ballad, Festival Song, that closes the album. Time passes? Sure, especially if you’re an older chap at a music festival, but “I am not home till late afternoon/So it’s arms in the air for one more tune”.