If only Morrissey had grown older and wiser like Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey, perhaps he would still be able to make a record as warm, witty and touching as Birling Gap.
Or maybe they were wise from the start, who knows?
I’m not going to indulge in a history lesson, you know the participants’ ‘heavenly’ history, I will however mention that the band also feature Fay Hallam, Andy Lewis and Ian Button, whose contributions elevate these songs onto an altogether different plain.
Birling Gap feels like a strictly non-hectoring state of the nation address, taking in the personal and the political, or maybe the two are simply inseparable whether you like or not.
That, at first glance, prosaic title is no random pin in the map selection either. Those great chalk cliffs in East Sussex seem, rather like our strange country (or maybe any country?), to have so many unspoken layers of significance and meaning. Hijacked by ‘patriots’, glimpsed in the distance by desperate migrants and chosen by some as the terminal destination in a life. All the while gradually crumbling into the ocean, hastened on by climate change.
Underestimate the seemingly mundane at your peril.
‘Face on the Rail Line’ is almost a shock if your expectations are based on ill-informed preconceptions. Musically detailed and rich but underscored with a hint of anxiety, is the exhortation to, ‘not lose your way’ addressed to another person, a hushed reminder to yourself or even the country at large?
That depth, both musically and lyrically, puts us in the territory of prime XTC. Catenary Wires also share the same sense of Englishness and as an album, Birling Gap shows, in these strange days where ‘sovereignty’ has become an answer to any questioning of our future identity, that it is possible to both love your country while still being able to see its many flaws and inequalities. It seems obvious but now, not so much.
Thankfully however Amelia and Rob aren’t here to deliver a dry exercise in soul-searching, this is still defiantly a pop record.
Listen to them trading vocal lines on the wonderful ‘Alpine’, a simple appreciation of a moment in time. Again, probably the type of song you don’t write when you’re 21, unless you’re an older soul.
And what an arrangement, verging on chamber pop, insidious guitar line, heavenly backing vocals, an ambitious song about simple pleasure and its fleeting nature.
Then, how can you resist a song that begins with the line, ‘It was an 80s disco…I know, not cool...’
Heck ‘Mirrorball’ even has a synth-drum in the mix. I’m not great with ‘fun’ songs but this feels like my kind of fun. It seems compulsory to mention Lee and Nancy when talking of the more unconventional of duets, but if that’s even remotely accurate we are well and truly talking of a version sung in a car park in Croydon rather than under a Californian sun. Maybe an ‘Amelia and Rob’ parallel career beckons? I’m even going to forgive a mention of Jason and Kylie.
In a word? Irresistible.
When you consider your favourite albums, it’s often the case that they are either firmly focussed on one sound or skilfully varied. Birling Gap falls into the latter camp and skilfully trades in many genres, managing to transcend them all.
‘Always on my Mind’ feels like an English take on Californian sunshine pop, featuring cascading melodies and backing vocals that should be sung while hand jiving.
The taught, anxious ‘Liminal’ is an unassuming gem that would be the highlight of many albums but here it would be easy to overlook its charms. My advice is to pay attention and take the additional educational opportunity to make sure you know what the title means, it turns out I was only halfway there…
Rob takes the lead for ‘Cinematic’ a song with an air of faintly troubling mystery that stays with you long after the final notes fade.
All too quickly we arrive at the terminus with ‘The Overview Effect’ a song that manages to travel to Easter Island and back before ambiguously asking, ‘can things stay the same?’
Of course we all know the answer to the question, whether that leaves you with hope or foreboding only you can say.
A record bursting with life, ideas, humour, and pathos. Stuffed full of ideas that maybe shouldn’t always work but do. Whisper it, but this is a really entertaining listen stimulating and provoking at the same time. Do you know how hard that is to pull off?
They don’t often make ‘em like this anymore, so get it while you can.