Album Review: Adrian Crowley - I See Three Birds Flying (Chemikal Underground)
For the last couple of gloriously Olympic months it seems to have been almost unpatriotic - maybe even illegal – and certainly socially unacceptable to be in any way gloomy or contemplative. For some, I'm sure that's been a wonderful opportunity to be irritatingly outgoing and chatty in all sorts of usually dour situations, but for those of us given to bouts of unexplained melancholy, it's not been an easy time at all. Right in the middle of this period of enforced national happiness Adrian Crowley's "I See Three Birds Flying" landed in my inbox, providing a decadently bleak sky to offset the flag waving and pomp. Indeed it's fair to say that this is far from a happy record – but it's also the sound of a man who can very effectively channel dark humour into his otherwise reflective take on songwriting. A veteran of Fence Records' Homegame and a collaborator with the likes of James Yorkston, Dublin-based Crowley's complex and shifting take on folk music will probably not be wholly unfamiliar to a Scottish audience. From the outset his voice is the striking centrepiece of this record. With vocals mostly recorded in a single take and often 'out in the field' so to speak, his default mode is deep and sonorous, capable of shifting between funereal darkness and tear-stained bar-room philosophy without cracking a sweat. But as Crowley twists his voice into the opulent, beautifully detailed musical backdrops, it becomes clear he is capable of soaring suddenly into a line from a standing start somewhere right down in his boots, meeting the emotional pull of the lyrics head on.
Like all the best fairy tales, we pick up events lost in a dark forest with "Alice Among The Pines". This demonstrates the tension at the heart of this record – between crafted and layered chamber-pop complexity and simple, sometimes rather fragile home recordings. Here it's largely just Crowley's voice and an indistinct piano melody reverberating around an empty room like a wind-up music box. Shifting into a mid-section which conjures visions of Smog at their most poignantly dark, the track challenges Adrian to find a note of optimism among the trees. Any hint this might stick around is soon dispelled by "The Saddest Song", an interestingly honest reflection on the songwriters craft as Crowley wakes to urgently record his dreams in an effort to 'write the saddest song in the world'. Accompanied here by swells of strings and a shimmer of picked electric guitars, perhaps the closest reference point for Crowley's voice is Mark Eitzel's fragile, broken croon. Things move a little more up-tempo on "At The Starlight Hotel" which numbers a mellotron, an omnichord and a zither amongst a twinkling array of guitars and a subtle rhythm section which transports Crowley to some unnamed but seedily familiar European capital of downtrodden arcades and closed cinemas haunted by Leonard Cohen at his cynical and bitter finest. There is redemption in Crowley's take on this place though, which prevents the song descending into the depths. Indeed this trick pays off right across the album where a grim, sometimes bittersweet humour salves the soul and turns things around. When it lands, it produces some of the records finest lyrical moments.
The album's title is drawn from "Fortune Teller Song", which is by contrast an uncomplicated folk tune at heart, and distinctly low in fidelity. As the guitar reels gently alongside a beautifully gloomy cello line, Crowley's distant, echoing voice appears to melt into the music and become one of the instruments. The simple lyric deals in fate and determinism, and adopts a fittingly repetitive meter. When the strings arrive - provided by Vincent Siprelli and Emma Smith of Geese - this all too brief song spirals gloriously and stratospherically, without losing any of its personal, intimate feel. Following this, "From Champions Avenue to Misery" is one of the few songs on the record which betray explicit links to Crowley's heritage. Starting his journey in a fairly unprepossessing housing development tucked into the cityscape just north of central Dublin, we're taken on a physical and emotional journey around the 'city of ghosts'. It's a song of uneasy homecoming and perhaps unwelcome recovered memory set against a gentle, evocative soundtrack played and recorded entirely by Crowley himself. The record draws to a close with a pair of particularly strong pieces as Geese return on "Lady Lazarus", with Emma and Vincent supplying a beautifully crafted wash of strings and even some understated backing vocals. Finally Crowley haunts London in "September Wine" which sees him take up the Marxophone, research indicating this is some sort of miniature, fretless zither. Here it provides a curiously renaissance era feel to a song which is about as unashamedly triumphant as "I See Three Birds Flying" gets, as the hero of the piece throws an unclaimed gift into the Serpentine and almost bursts a lung in joyous song.
Adrian Crowley's sixth album - and his first recorded output since 2009's "Season of the Sparks" - is a record which echoes with footsteps in deserted places, chance meetings and both literal and metaphorical hauntings. It's impossible not to get caught up and swept along by his wonderfully rich vocal performances - a voice which feels like an old friend by the end of the record. On one level this a wonderfully soothing, gentle set of songs which will wash over you in quiet moments, but a deeper listen rewards with colourful characters and engaging stories which are sometimes intriguingly only half-revealed.
Chemikal Underground will release "I See Three Birds Flying" on 17th September 2012.