Written by: Dave Cantrell
Sometimes the cover of an album, more than the song titles, more even than what you know about the band and their history, tells it all. The Wild Swans’ newest, The Coldest Winter For A Hundred Years, is a case in point. Or a case in paint, as its cover is a floral still life oil painting by Ged Quinn, a founding member of the band that also supplies piano on one song here. The vase’s arrangement is crowded, busy with variety and slightly past the fullest burst of its bloom. One massive red flower – a peony, maybe – is already bowing its head to the table, a victim of its own weight and the lateness of the hour. Beneath are scatters of deep green leaves lying on the table, set to curl. But in spite of that, and in spite of its nearly lightless setting – the one source of light, a tiny high window like a transom, is reflected in the vase – the flowers offer themselves in a rather fearless display of life and beauty, effusing a dark light in defiance of their surroundings, of the bleak place they find themselves. Efflorescence, they seem to say, will out.
For the benefit of readers unfamiliar, a quick history: Wild Swans originally emerged out of fertile, embarrassment-of-riches Liverpool in 1980, when main Swan and songwriter Paul Simpson left Teardrop Explodes and hooked up with future Lotus Eater Jem Kelly and others. Supported by flatmate Pete DeFreitas of Echo, who produced and financed well-received first single “Revolution Spirit” in 1982, they gigged a lot to often rapturous response but only managed a Peel session before disbanding. The WS brand floundered until 1986 when that 3-song Peel session was released and created enough fuss to prompt a second go. The resulting album, 1988’s Bringing Home The Ashes, was a disappointment to nearly all concerned, not least Simpson, who blamed that curious mix of label interference/indifference for what he considered the album’s poor sound.
In perhaps the most singularly succinct indictment ever uttered of the record industry’s tendency to meddle where it shouldn’t, Simpson, the band collapsing around him, said, “Major labels suck the poetry from your bones and fill the gaps with a cement made from cocaine and crushed teenagers.” The time spent wandering the desert was mercifully brief, however, as the band managed to resurrect itself by 1990 for LP Space Flower, produced by Liverpudlian stalwart Ian Broudie (Deaf School, later of Lightning Seeds). This too, however, fell well short of expectations and the band fractured with almost lightning speed.
Since then, well, it’s been a longer walk across those sandy plains. Mostly Simpson wrote to please himself, and mostly what he wrote was music sans lyrics – a telling reflection, maybe, of the disappointment of his earlier words not having reached enough ears – trading under the name Skyway. Sizable though it is, a brace of instrumental/soundscape albums may have kept Simpson’s creative wick burning but the Cult of the Wild Swans was left bereft and restless. Crucially, a couple retrospective comps (Incandescent in 2003, with those Peel sides plus ones from Kid Jensen and Janice Long, plus demos, live tracks, etc.; then in 2007 Sire put out Magnitude, basically both albums with added bits and bobs) kept the cult’s appetite suitably whetted. Wild Swans always attracted a devoted fan base and those repackagings turned still more ears and conjured a new crop of listeners that eagerly added their tacit voices to a whispered chorus of “What if?” What if The Wild Swans reformed and were given a shot to deliver on that magnificently swooning promise, make that definitive album that’s always lurked teasingly behind the two gallant but underperforming LPs of yore? And whattaya know, after this seemingly interminable – and to some excruciating – hiatus, they’ve done just that. So, cut to the quick, you say, did they succeed?
The answer, released via Occultation earlier this year – no, wait, first another bon mot courtesy of Mister Simpson, how can we resist: “For me the Wild Swans was like a beautiful, holy, sexy, disturbing, dreamy nightmare about breaking into heaven to have sex with the angels. Unfortunately I was woken from my reverie by someone yelling into my ear ‘Paul, it’s 3 AM, it’s pissing with rain, it’s your turn to clean the toilet and, oh yeah, your dog is dead” – the answer, minus a couple of those adjectives (not a lot ostensibly sexy about this record, a minimum of holy, loosely defined) is a resounding Yes, emphasis on that syllable ‘sound.’
It would be easy, logical even, to focus almost exclusively on Simpson’s words to determine how much all this “unfinished business” business is being addressed on this album. This would, however, be missing a fair amount of the point. It’s the totality of this record that constitutes a kind of culmination, the whole package, from the cover to the lyrics to the arrangements and the sound. As to that last, you’ll keep saying to yourself, “The sound of this album.” The Coldest Winter For A Hundred Years is a headphone classic. Co-producer, with the band, Richard Turvey, in a feat of rookie legerdemain, has conjured a sonic environment that places the listener inside the boisterous, longing shimmer of Simpson’s aesthetic. Whatever way you listen to this album, do yourself and it a favor and listen on some fine stereophonic gear; you both deserve it.
Wild Swans songs generally – and on this album especially – more or less dare you to walk around on the dreariest, most downcast overcast day while listening to them on your iPod and not feel uplifted. You’d look at the mounting grey, the gnarled windwhipped empty branches and no matter the bittersweet sadness inherent, you’d see the beauty in it. The chills you’d feel, in other words, wouldn’t be coming solely from the winter’s cold.
The themes on those previous, long-ago albums were more abstractly romantic, more windswept and moors-inhabited than here. On those you could feel Simpson stretching to try and match the burst of youthful ambition and the relative failure to do so to his satisfaction was, in hindsight, somewhat predictable. Such a stretch, at such an early age, often only leads to a kind of thinning. Here, he’s matured into his vision and the result is more personal, and personable, essaying childhood homes and scenes of halcyonic youth and other autobiographical themes, all of it shot through with an unmistakable Englishness. Though there are a couple of songs that don’t strictly hew to this template – “In Secret,” ostensibly an infidelity song though the lover may well be his Muse; “Intravenous,” love as goddess, love as drug – mostly what we have here is a writer in thrall to his roots, geographical and musical, and when those roots happen to be Liverpool 1975-1980, who can blame him? When one thinks of Liverpool in the second half of the 20th century, the inextricability of pop music to the city’s cultural history is of course inescapable. But the argument can be persuasively made that the scene that emerged directly in the wake of punk – let’s call it the Era of the Crucial Three for shorthand’s sake – exceeded in vitality, inventiveness and pure staggering musical awesomeness its more famous Mop Topped forebear. Similarly, when one thinks of Liverpool since that second explosion, one gets…one gets…? So it comes as little surprise that Simpson, in surveying the landscape through the diminishing lens of a backwards telescope, comes away equally in thrall to a sense of loss.
The poignant sting of loss, we’ve all felt it. But it’s instructive to bear in mind, when listening to this record, that we save our most biting bitterness for those we remember most fondly, for that that we have loved the deepest. But let’s also not forget that this is a Wild Swans album, so any disappointments and indictments we get will come swathed through a lush, lilting filter that turns those bitter salts to something far more palatable, tinges them, even, with a wisp of sweetness.
Take opener, “Falling To Bits.” It’s hard to believe there’s ever been a more lilting indictment, nor one more welcoming of others – “from the checkout girl to the fourteenth earl” – to join the singer’s loving indignation. For make no mistake, even as he couldn’t make it clearer how dreadful he finds the state of his legendary hometown and its surrounding area, Simpson’s love for it could not be more evident. The resonance of place alone speaks to this – Portland Bill, Pendle Hill, Scotland Road – and immediately the thematic heart of this album is in place: the sadness of a thing lost is impossible without there first having been a vibrant love for it, a love that never leaves, no matter.
Throughout TCWFAHY memories of Liverpool, and/or that time period, glow. There are markers everywhere. Meeting Ged and ‘J’ (Julian, one presumes) in “Liquid Mercury,” “Beatles wigs and Deaf School gigs” – a personal favorite of this writer – along with “The Psychic Truth Society,” “Sleeping Gas” and “Do It Clean” in “My Town,” the LP’s most shamelessly nostalgic paean to the magical charms of Mersey even as he repeatedly reminds us “It’s over now, it’s over now.” ‘When Time Stood Still’ finds the singer driving back to Liverpool in a pouring rain, “to the house where (he) was born,” his thoughts idly riffing on that peculiar oddness any of us of a certain vintage find ourselves feeling in unguarded moments, the sense of there having been nowt but a blink between then and now. The triggers this time jump from early-teen formative – Iggy, Lou, Bowie and, umm, Be Bop Deluxe (“Sunburst Finish”) to the headspinningly timeless moment Simpson was in the thick of – The Fall, The Gang Of Four, Patti’s Horses and Little Johnny Jewel – and in which the songwriter forged his musical identity. Though affecting, and encased in an optimistic, almost sunny melody (harpsichord!), “When Time Stood Still” is lyrically the weakest song here, hamstrung by the pure bloody difficulty of tackling that subject without dipping into the trite and maudlin. Regardless of that, smack in the middle of it, is the line “The Runcers Bridge is bathed in light and the river runs the colour of mud,” a truly lovely line sung in a manner that seems almost tossed off. And therein, as might be said, lies the Simpsonian rub.
There are few songwriters more illustrative of the fineness – and cursed unpredictability – of the dividing line separating the quotidian from the sublime, fewer still who intermingle them with fairly fearless aplomb. It would be tempting to say that Simpson has two songwriting settings: intimate epic and epic epic, but however much a kernel of truth there is to that, it would also be almost criminally facile. True, there is often a putative simplicity to Simpson’s lyrics but the apparent ease is misleading, as anyone who’s attempted to make lyricism this, well, lyrical actually work, with anything approaching the consistency on display here, will attest.
It is, in short, hard work, which is why so few have done it this well. The Church and other expansive Kiwi pop auteurs come to mind. Icicle Works is a rather more obvious, and local, precursor, though McNabb’s outfit never quite managed, nor for that matter pursued, the lush production landscapes that Wild Swans paint seemingly without effort on this album. But again, it’s that ‘seemingly’ that’s most salient. If it was easy to do you could safely wager more bands would, the results are just too damn beautiful to not. As a test, should you have any doubt, go try it yourself some time, then dash a file off to us here at Stereo Embers Central, we’d love to hear it.
In fact, on TCWFAHY, just when you think ‘Hold on a sec, that’s a little too too’ – abutting Goeffrey Chaucer with Johnny Rotten, for instance, in “English Electric Lightning” – Simpson, more often than not, not only redeems himself, and quickly, but does so with a knockout punch, as with “bargain booze and Robert Wyatt, happy slappers, Toxteth riots,” which you’ll find smack on the heels of the Chaucer/Rotten line.
“English Electric Lightning,” by the way, is arguably the premier example of the comingling of those two ‘epic’ settings, an exacting distillation of Simpson’s primary literary device on this album, weaving the deeply personal into the broader quilt of a troubled Britain. Written from the perspective of someone unsettled to the point of sleeplessness (“In the madness of my 3AMs, I am lost without a guide”), it’s one of those ‘dark night of the soul’ songs that normally traffic in love lost or being lost, love in danger, and here’s it’s no different, only the lover is England, and an England the writer feels has been swamped in cheap modernity, in a certain modern callousness, an England that has all but forgotten the cultural glories of its past or, worse yet, is indifferent to them. Chock full of tidy, startling couplets, try this one on for size: “council housing, Shakespeare’s sonnets, Turner’s sunset in pools of vomit.” That’s nailed it, then.
But if we’re going to talk ‘nailed,’ both in terms of that woven textural sense of the then-and-now, epic/personal already discussed and pure, banging, chill-inducing, bloody great songcraft, we have to talk “Chloroform.” In that fantasy parallel world where many of us live, where “Ever Fallen In Love,” “I Almost Prayed” and “Cattle And Cane” were monster hits planet-wide, “Chloroform” would join their ranks. Beginning with a singular, slightly echo-clad guitar figure, authored by Brian Jonestown Massacre alum Ricky Rene Maymi, that is joined almost immediately by a water-dripping synth effect and one beat later by the lonely tinkle of a piano and a subtle introduction of strings, the listener’s lulled into a dream state, and even when the drums jump in at the 10-second mark there’s little indication of the soaring, driving, hook-laden gem that follows. Isn’t until the first wall-of-sound crash of Mike Mooney’s almost bluesy rhythm guitar a few seconds hence – with what sounds like a slide lead snaking deep in the mix – that you realize you’re in for a more swooping, powerful ride than you first believed. Hell, Simpson’s vocals don’t even enter the picture until 35 seconds in but when they do, it’s clear what all the fuss is about. Let’s let them speak for themselves: “In the First World War my grandfather/ was fighting in the trenches/and I can’t conceive of the things he saw/ as his friends were blown to pieces/ In a chlorine burst over no man’s land/ they shot the boy deserters” and then it’s off to the chorus, but by this time, even as that chorus (“And it feels like chloroform”) announces itself with a kind of ecstatic sadness, you’re already done in by that ‘chlorine burst’ line. Once again, Simpson’s gift for the succinct married to the vast is on stunning display, and a certain breathlessness and rising gooseflesh obtains. It’s only 3:26, this song, with naught but two stanzas and a two-line repeated chorus sung three times, but as it rides out its last half-minute with the band in glorious sync, leaning into the wind around a descending piano melody reminiscent of Al Kooper’s on Dylan’s “Sooner Or Later,” it’s clear you’ve just been ushered through some pretty rarefied territory, and you might have to hit the repeat button at least once before moving on.
What remains falls essentially into that thematically bifurcated vast/succinct equation. Penultimate track “Lost At Sea” is a cousin of sorts to “Chloroform,” if quieter, more elegiac, a poetry of sound more than lyric and as such delivers less impact, pretty as it is. In its wake “The Bluebell Wood,” an earthy anthem that doesn’t shy away from the old chestnut “it was all fields ‘round here when I were a lad,” though the fields are forests and the lad is the land itself. “And the sacred groves, those mighty oaks, are dark satanic shopping centres now” is a fairly concise summation of what’s on offer here, and there’s an admirable quality to Simpson’s pure embrace of the innate regret and feeling of irreversible loss (that word again) inherent to such a sentiment. It’s a fitting finish to an album that’s been swamped in such sentiment throughout.
Tucked into the center of the album, however, runs a triptych of songs – “Underwater,” “Intravenous” and “Glow In The Dark” – that require quick mention at least, since they serve, clustered snugly together as they are, as a sort of refuge, a shelter from the wider despair that flocks the rest of the record. Whereas TCWFAHY, overall, exudes a Baudelarian air, an English version of the absinthe-soaked ruminations of a garret denizen twenty years after the fact, all a-bulge with sorrowfully poetic yet stingingly real reflections, here in this quick clutch of songs comes a 10-plus minute float through stiller waters, beginning, appropriately enough, with “Underwater.”
Entering on a rising scythe of guitar before settling into a jouncing rhythm not far from its Madchester relatives (and by the way, kudos to Steve Beswick’s stick work throughout, dazzlingly efficient, propulsive when needed, perfectly accentual when not), it follows the singer from the seaweed-entangled depths, struggling through troughs of spiritual anomie, “drowning underwater,” into the arms of an unnamed “she,” an agent of uplift that emerges from the murk to guide him if not to shore at least to a place he can breathe, breathe and carry on. All of which sounds pretty chancy on paper but on record it’s rather irresistible, the squall of dual guitar solos that finishes the song transportive, the band swimming in tight formation like a bar band gone to rapture.
On that song’s mermaid tail comes “Intravenous,” the album’s most naked display of Simpson’s blood-deep streak of romanticism, however Dantean it is in its imagery. It’s short and sweet and almost odic, there’s Paradise and Purgatory, there’s a saturnalian darkness vanquished by the goddess of love. All of which also sounds pretty chancy on paper and in fact it rather is, ranking as the album’s shallowest spot, though again, it’s radio-ready and sounds a peach, buoyed by an enveloping pop shroud quality with a gentle sirenic howl of slide guitar pitched back in the mix, behind the verse – courtesy Will Sargeant – giving it just the right mix of shiver and mystery.
And, leaving us perfectly primed for – and this is saying something – the prettiest song on the album, which is hardly a song at all. Ruminative and intimate, “Glow In The Dark” moves at the speed of a twilit dream. Featuring one of the loneliest, loveliest basslines to introduce a song in ages, it immediately fills with sighing atmospherics and a slow, steady, hypnotic beat designed, it would seem, to make the listener fall into a pool of his own reflection. Lyrically, “Glow In The Dark” is haiku-ish in its brevity, though of course not structured as such. Instead, Simpson layers a few plainspoken lines into a koan-like meditation on the vagaries and limitations of time and therefore existence. With mournful, knowing resignation he arrives at the inevitable, “there’s not enough space to go forward/ and we can’t travel back,” the words all the while cosseted in an arrangement and production that just plain droops with the swooning beauty necessary to carry their existential simplicity across the threshold. Truly, if the sad but glittering twinkle of piano echoing throughout this song doesn’t, on its own, spread a chill up the back of your neck, you should put thumb to wrist without delay. Carried along as it is with that aching bassline and a subtly alluring blanket of other effects, you’re simply left breathless.
Which, of course, is the point. The Coldest Winter For A Hundred Years is, despite its icy title, meant to seduce, and seduce it shall. But it’s worth keeping in mind the original, primary seduction at work here, that of Liverpool on one of her favored sons. Even at its bitterest this album is no less a panegyric to the famed and ancient Merseyside dock town as Terence Davies’s “Distant Voices, Still Lives,” and like that 1988 film (putting aside for a moment Davies’s dismissive disdain for ‘beat music’), it’s not Scouser wit on display, it’s Scouser sentiment. Not surprisingly, the latter is just as lovely – and loving – as the former is biting.
And overall it’s TCWFAHY’s pure, bracing, lush and rather relentless loveliness that will hang with you after your second, third, fourth hearing – you won’t be able to listen just once – and every time you return the disc to its sleeve, slip that sleeve inside its cover, the significance of the cover painting will, if you’ll pardon the expression, blossom ever more deeply with every viewing. A bloom against the gloom, indeed.