“the purring of the landscape”

Artist: William D. Drake

Album: the Rising of the Lights

I had a failed revelation about William D. Drake’s the Rising of the Lights, maybe the 15th time I listened to it, where I realized I’d discovered a glorious vein of elementally pure pop music. That doesn’t work, of course. If I say “elementally pure pop music” to you, do you picture piano/keyboard-centered music that’s jolly, often prancing, often lilting, eccentric, very very British, and steeped in years of lessons in writing counterpoint and analyzing sonatas? Probably not. I doubt I did either, the first 14 times I listened to the Rising of the Lights. So even if I’m right, it doesn’t help.

Specifics, then. First song Super Altar opens with two forcefully jaunty piano rhythms at the same time and William D. Drake’s comedic, accented, gently declamatory (but in-tune) voice asking “What life is there, outside my headroom, bedroom?” Answers, found “outside my cottage”, include “a perfect dandy’s beano, always with a perfect helicopter”, not to mention “merriment and fornication”, related or otherwise to the “vicar’s wife with the too-large nose”. Ant Trees, rapid-paced and shifting time signatures, urges “Please remind me of the time/ when we were so divine, dancing”, but its romance quickly slips into “You made me lots of cups of tea/ You always made sure everything was right/ left, right”. It squeezes many fantastic melodic hooks into under two minutes, and makes a great dance song if (like me) you don’t mind growing and discarding extra legs on demand.

But I won’t blame other dancers who wait for the swaying waltz of In an Ideal World, crooned and with female harmonies, next. That said, In an Ideal World could’ve been a hit. The woodwind section’s more advanced than usual, I guess, but it’s a lovely track, and lyrics like “I’ll do my best to try and help you”, “Open up your heart, you will not fall apart”, and “There’s a time to act, there’s a time to wait/ There’s a time to leave, there’s a time to stay” are sweet and solemnly delivered.

Ornamental Hermit is also lovely, rippling with piano arpeggios and what I think is a synthesizer impression of distant bagpipes. “Of all the things you did for me, the one most splendid/ was to christen a place in me where I could be the most contented/ person. Thank you for an ornamental hermit in the garden”, Drake sings solemnly, sounding as if his voice flows through the decades from an old Victrola. “Overflowing with joy, overflowing” he adds later. Then the track’s piano turns dark, rumbling, and dissonant as his suddenly stern Peter Hammill-like voice contemplates leaving his home and garden: “Living on the wing is not always my favorite thing”, “Flying higher and higher, without the fear, without the fuss, that so beset poor Icarus”. Then the song turns lovely again and ends.

Mostly, enjoying this record will tend to come down to two issues. One: do you like artful, happy tunes in the British music hall tradition of a Day in the Life, Penny Lane, and what He’s a Lumberjack and He’s Okay would have sounded like with piano counterpoint and a clarinet trio? Two: are you fine with lyrics whose sincerity is impossible to determine? The record feels to me genuinely sweet in tone – I imagine Drake (cousin of Nick Drake, and former keyboardist of the Cardiacs) as a kind, easy-to-like man – but “I love you love me, she-it loves me, love you, love in the plural” is a ridiculous chorus. A different song’s “I love you, sexy dragon” might be sincere but is not, according to most zoologists, likely to be literal. The contemplative, soothingly harmonized, saxophone-and-flute-aided Me Fish Bring might be the most gorgeous song released in the last couple of years; it’s also called Me Fish Bring.

I’m fine with all of that. If you are too, I recommend  the Rising of the Lights highly.

– Brian Block