(Memphis Industries, out Fri 2 Feb 2018)
It’s difficult to imagine what a “classic” album by Field Music would be like. A distillation of the cultural zeitgeist? A set of belting singles? An epic song suite? The Sunderland lads seem unlikely to ever direct their talent into such an artefact. Instead, Open Here is what they’ve produced for a decade and a bit now – a sophisticated collection of different musical ideas, never afraid to veer off unexpectedly, wilfully avoiding simple melodic pleasure if there’s another avenue to explore. It’s very accomplished, an album for connoisseurs, but it still retains an air of the music academy. A fascinating workout for the ears, but hard to truly fall in love with.
Opener Time In Joy is a case in point. From silence, it gently builds a tension you know is going to explode, but as it hits a minute and a half instead of bursting into an air-punching chorus – the crowd-pleasing route – it spirals into a tricksy guitar-and-flute sparring exercise – the muso option. Share A Pillow is another track to wrong-foot you. For a moment it seems we’re getting a straight 70s stomper in the mould of Noel Gallagher’s recent Holy Mountain, and the dirty brass that follows would back that up, but there’s also a deliberately ugly guitar riff wedged in to break the flow.
All the familiar elements of the Field Music sound are present on this album – math-rock obliqueness, sophistipop delicacy, Beatlesy orchestral snippets. There’s Fool On The Hill flute here, Eleanor Rigby strings there. It’s distinguishing feature compared to previous efforts is the odd nod to 80s pop.
Goodbye To The Country‘s backing wouldn’t sound out of place as the hard-edged track on a Janet Jackson or Paula Abdul album. Find A Way To goes a bit Billy Joel with its piano break. Lead track Count It Up is a call to, in modern parlance, check your privilege, or in language more fitting of their roots, a reminder that you don’t know you’re born, lad. David Brewis has called it his Material Girl. A handy soundbite for interviews, but musically it’s more Thomas Dolby blinding us with science. All the same, its spirit is definitely 80s of some variety.
It’s a good indication to where this album’s at lyrically too. They’ve proudly put their social conscience on display. No King No Princess sees them debate gender roles. Goodbye To The Country looks at immigration. Pre-release interviews have exposed their disgust at their hometown’s embrace of Brexit. One imagines that plays well with their current following, but it must put some distance between them and those they started out with.
At the end Find A Way To does what its counterpart does at the start of the album – behaves unpredictably. A lush, string-and-choir filled climax – perhaps the epic song suite is in them after all – just stops dead. Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, Jeff Lynne would have known what to do there. They’d have souped it up for maximum effect. The Brewis boys? Flute trill and kill it dead. Always taking the non-obvious route marks them out, but after six albums of showcasing their invention, they’d be challenging themselves more to reach for that classic.