Thursday, 11 December 2014

Nick Talbot of Gravenhurst

It was tremendously sad to learn of the passing of Nick Talbot, who died on 4th December at the desperately premature age of 37. Talbot had been the creative force behind the group Gravenhurst for 12 years, ever since their first LP Internal Travels, released in 2002. Indeed, Gravenhurst was, at various points, a veil for solo projects and performances. Talbot’s hushed voice, assured guitar fingerpicking and ear for affecting melody made the more intimate solo aspects of his work quietly compelling, drawing the listener into dark places and states of mind, but always tempered with compassion, pity and even empathetic identification. The more haunting and haunted aspects of the folk repertoire were an influence, as were the folk artists of the 60s and 70s. There are definite echoes of Nick Drake’s solid fingerstyle playing to the circling patterns of Circadian on the Ghost in Daylight album, for example, and his more dextrous accompaniments recall Bert Jansch and John Renbourne, in or out of Pentangle. There’s something of a folk air to the name, too. It’s an imaginary English place fashioned from a real village. Whilst Gravenhurst songs often have a contemporary urban setting, there’s always a hint of older patterns coming through the grubby surfaces, ancient and mysterious landscapes underlying the cracked concrete surfaces, thrice told tales recurring once more.

Gravenhurst could also create a driving sound as a trio or quartet, with the occasional guitar explosion providing the cathartic release of ecstatic noise. There was s subtle sound design applied to both the stark acoustic and fleshed out electric incarnations of Gravenhurst. Talbot had been inspired by the likes of Flying Saucer Attack and Third Eye Foundation when he moved to Bristol in the 90s, drawn to the richness and depth of their drone-based sounds. Many of his own productions surround the songs with shimmering haloes of organ drone and flickering spectres of electro-acoustic sound. They can be heard to great effect on Fitzrovia, which is backed by the moaning ghosts and echoing rush of the forgotten histories and buried rivers (‘Wandle, Falcon, Effra, Ravensbourne’) the song summons up. This, together with a feel for dynamic pacing which gives some of the longer numbers a sense of narrative development, lends his music a certain cinematic air. There were the occasional instrumental pieces, too. This seemed to be a direction he was moving in on the last album, The Ghost in Daylight. Carousel and Islands are particular lovely ambient miniatures, the latter dedicated to the Broadcast singer Trish Keenan. I first saw Gravenhurst when they supported Broadcast back in 2006.

Lyrically, Talbot was always attracted to dark matter. A recurrent theme was the seed of violence inherent in humanity, ‘the velvet cell within men’. In an early song from Flashlight Seasons, I Turn My Face to the Forest Floor, he wrote ‘you’re only a stone’s throw from all the violence you buried years ago’. It’s a line which forms the basis for a significant portion of his future output. This violence exists on a personal level, but also expands outwards into society and into the political arena. It reflects the balance of power at all levels. So, in Black Holes in the Sand, he sings ‘I held the hand that threw the stone that killed the bird that woke the city’. A circle of culpability and indirect agency which insists on a moral dimension to the most seemingly inconsequential of actions. The Foundry on the 2012 album The Ghost in Daylight makes the connection between violent impulses on a personal level and the violence of fascism and other political doctrines of forceful control explicit. ‘A uniform changes something inside’ Talbot writes, ‘and you won’t know when evil comes, evil looks just like anyone’. Anyone is capable of it, ‘the man with the match could be anybody’. This concern with violence also manifests itself in one aspect of Talbot’s writing which I find troubling: his portraits of murderers and serial killers. The serial killer as a modern day mythological figure and recurrent motif of horror and detective fiction is a cultural phenomenon which I find particularly depressing. Talbot’s disturbingly allusive songs are generally indirect and focus on the inner state of the characters he creates. In some respects, they are contemporary manifestations of old, death-haunted folk songs. Although Talbot’s approach is the opposite to the extrovert melodrama of Nick Cave’s murder ballads – his songs hint at hidden stories rather than explicitly relating them in an unfolding narrative. It’s significant that the only time he does do this it turns out to be a cover version – Husker Du’s Diane.

These songs also intersect with another abiding thematic concern, the distance between people and the retreat into states of disconnection and isolated inner solitude. Another early song from Flashlight Seasons, The Ice Tree, sets the mood: ‘we try to connect with the people outside, they pass through our slumber like trains in the night’. A feeling of numbness and emotional damage blurs the psyches of Talbot’s subjects. They stumble through the world like bewildered ghosts. In She Dances, the dancer thinks ‘I need new clothes, new skin; a mind I can bear to live in’. Another character (in Animals) reflects upon the revellers of an English Saturday night and muses ‘I wish I could be like them and I try/but I find it more rewarding to walk along the river/picturing my body discarded in the water’. Clearly there’s a good deal of self-loathing going on here, which can develop into an unhealthy way of defining identity, of creating confining prisons for the soul. This is fully expressed in the short lyric of the lengthy Song From Under the Arches: ‘I’ve seen bad things in bad places/What did I learn?/Wallow in grime/Tonight we’ll drink the sewers dry/We can’t function outside of these dreams of suicide’. Relationships are also seen as traps, with romance a self-deluding compulsion which causes people to keep dancing around one another when any feeling has long since dissipated.

Talbot’s view of love may have been jaundiced, but he remained a romantic, albeit a dark-hued one. ‘The universal dance/The black romance’ as he puts it in Nicole is one whose steps he rehearsed over and again. He rakes over the cold ashes of love rather than stoking its initial heat, dwelling on the sadness of its diminishment and the bitterness of its betrayal. Again, a shrinking into the cold cage of the disconnected self is often the cause of death for romance. As he writes in The Ice Tree ‘I caress where my lover once lay by my side before I turned inwards and forced her to fly’.

Talbot was also a romantic in his use of romantic language and mysterious imagery drawn from the natural world. Pine forests, rivers and seas, snow, ice and fire, stars and moon are all used to evocative symbolic effect. These depict real, figurative and inner landscapes, the latter suggested by the title of the first Gravenhurst album, Inner Traveller. Natural landscapes are contrasted with decaying cityscapes, the expansiveness of the former serving to highlight the claustrophobic confinement of the latter. In Grand Union Canal, for example, he writes ‘while you are waiting for me by a copper blue sea/I am fading away in this room’. He conjures city atmospheres with a beautiful economy of effect worth of his literary hero Iain Sinclair. I particularly like ‘black spine Northern Line, feeds on money and time’ from Hourglass. It seems to paint the city itself as a predatory beast, a devouring underground serpent. Seasons and their atmospheres are also invoked, winter and autumn in particular. The winter chill is the natural mood for a Gravenhurst song, and we find it in the opening lines of The Foundry in which ‘two wolves chase a whitetail through the snow’, as well as in songs such as Fog Round the Figurehead (a marvellously imagistic title), Winter Moon and The Ice Tree. The idea of buried or sunken ruins, artefacts or histories is also one which fascinated Talbot. There are the ‘cities beneath the sea/in deserted towns and burial mounds’ and ‘buried in sand/an ancient talisman touched by a thousand hands’, as well as the ‘lost event(s) consigned to history’ in Fitzrovia, the secret stories of the city. These lost worlds or frozen landscapes equate with the subterranean caverns of the unconscious, the unexplored territories of the self.

It might sound as if the tenor of Talbot’s music is relentlessly and oppressively downbeat. Whilst it’s difficult to deny this charge given the evidence cited above, there are counterbalancing forces. They lyrical quality of the language raises the tone above turgid misery-mongering. The sheer beauty of much of the music and the light delicacy of Talbot’s voice (like a less wavering Robert Wyatt), which is shot through with compassion, sympathy and even pity, makes the subject matter easier to bear, and casts it in a different light. A commensurately harsh musical setting would indeed make it oppressive, the kind of thing which would only appeal to people who feel that music should be harrowing and extreme, an aural endurance test. And there are chinks of light which shine through, too. They are all the more pronounced and precious for their scarcity. Talbot rejected shallow triumphs, glittering prizes and facile, baseless positivism. What hope does emerge is hard-earned and thereby genuine and strong.

There is a non-denominational religious aspect to all of this; a yearning for an authentic way of being free of the traps of violence, false emotion and material desire. Something beyond ‘the emptiness of the prize’. He is seeking ‘the Ghost of St Paul, still missing’, as he put in the song on The Ghost in Daylight. Perhaps there are hints of it in older forms, in the mysterious folk rituals which he summons up so well in songs like Flowers in Her Hair. The unmasking of the Spring Queen, the metamorphosis of veneration into abomination, marks a passing of something from the world, a desacralisation. ‘And when the flowers died they saw through the disguise/and all the townsfolk circled her/with prayers and tar and feathers/and fire’. And later, in The Ghost of St Paul, ‘slowly the smell of her fades/as blossoms wither away’. The sense of the world as sacred, and of that sacredness as being essentially feminine, incarnated in the form of the Goddess, is supplanted by a worldview dominated by the male violence Talbot dissects. A violent power which itself dissects (and murders) anything threatening its authority or potency. The eponymous authority figures in Hollow Men ensure that the status quo is maintained, and that there can be no rebirth of the Goddess, of sacrosanct female power: ‘her name is known, her name is known,/cut her up, cut her out,/crush her before she finds it’.

Talbots landscapes are haunted by the hunted. From the whitetails chased by two black wolves in The Foundry through the ‘dog loose in the woods’ where there’s ‘a fox tied to a tree’ in Flowers In Her Hair to the knowledge that ‘they will come for me/with searchlights streaming through the cedar trees’ in Song Among the Pine. But there’s still a hint of something which was once there, and may one day be rediscovered and resurrected. The key line in Ghost of St Paul dedicates the song to those who refuse to give up hope, who continue the quest and resist the controls of those who would corral their spirit: ‘here’s to the brave/to all those resisting’.

Some of Talbot’s influences were revealed through his choices of covers. He went back to the roots of the expansive, noisy drift of fellow Bristolians Flying Saucer Attack and Third Eye Foundation by taking the psych pop of The Kinks’ See My Friends and extending its two chord drone to the horizon. Husker Du have already been mentioned, but there is a general translation of the brutal realism and anti-romanticism of hardcore into a more melancholic English idiom. The cover of Fairport Convention’s Farewell, Farewell demonstrates a real affinity with Richard Thompson’s bleak but compassionate songwriting. The spectral winds ghosting around guitar and voice suggest final words of parting, perhaps delivered from somewhere beyond. It’s a truly haunting interpretation. A version of Tim Buckley’s Song to the Siren also captures the haunted, yearning quality of its briny drift with unadorned simplicity. Talbot also sang The Beatles’ Only A Northern Song on a Mojo collection of Yellow Submarine covers. It was a choice which indicated he might have shared George Harrison’s disdain for music biz practices. He also expressed a great admiration for Ian Curtis’ writing, his pared down but resonant phrasing.

Talbot was a writer as well as a musician, and literary influences show through in much of his work. Hollow Men alludes to TS Eliot, whose Waste Land also permeates Gravenhurst’s entropic landscapes. William Burroughs, an early inspiration, is acknowledged in the title of the LP The Western Lands. The cover itself has a rather bookish graphic design. Talbot also wrote for the online magazine The Quietus, and interviewed a number of writers for its pages. He was a keen student of philosophy, and his interview with John Gray makes fascinating and revealing reading. Gray opposed the rationalist/humanist fundamentalism of Richard Dawkins and AC Grayling in his books Straw Dogs and The Silence of Animals. He offered a different interpretation of religion which acknowledges its value and usefulness as a mythological template for understanding the complexities of human behaviour and experience. In his introduction to the interview, Talbot indicates his sympathy for Gray’s views and his dislike for the wholesale attacks on religious belief launched by Dawkins and Grayling, whilst declaring his own atheist standpoint. He wrote ‘to the many atheists who found the Dawkins camp’s rabid proselytising not only smug but tinged with an oddly religious fervour, the prospect of an intellectual heavyweight tearing up the very foundations of the rationalist position was a beautiful thing’. It shines a further light on, and adds more complex shading to the yearning for the sacred, for deeper connection in the Gravenhurst lyrics.

Talbot’s interview with Alan Moore reveals further literary influences: both Moore himself and the London writings of Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd. Talbot published a few issues of a comic called Ultraskull, written by himself and a small coterie of collaborators. Avowedly amateurish, thoroughly cynical and deliberately offensive, it was an uncensored outpouring which recast Gravenhurst preoccupations in the form of deep black humour. It was occasionally funny, frequently sick, sometimes both – a nihilistic blast. Talbot was a particular admirer of Sinclair’s language, viewing its concentrated folding of word pictures, allusions and metaphors as something to aspire to. The conversation with Moore also turns to HP Lovecraft, which points to another inspiration, a source for those subterranean cities and ‘black holes in the sand’. Talbot was a horror fan in general, and ghosts and spectres flit through his work over the years. The luminous string arrangement at the end of The Prize is provided by the Algernon Blackwood Memorial Ensemble.

In fact, The Prize is a grand song to go out on. If the sentiments of the lyric insist upon the emptiness of the prize, be that romantic fulfilment or the promises of shiny consumer enticements, the glorious coda offers something far more uplifting. The strings swell and pulsate, building and building until the voice of the guitar explodes into roaring harmony, elevating everything with an ecstatic chordal riff. It’s such a celebratory sound, not empty at all. Perhaps that the message left for us. Music is where we find direct connection. In a cold world, this is the warm, beating heart of it all. The real Prize. God bless and may you find peace.

1 comment:

td Whittle said...

Thank you for this beautiful overview of Nick Talbot. I have only just heard of him, and this gave me a good feel for his work. Cheers.