by Fiach Smyth
Imagine: music (whose je ne sais quoi is viele Punkte (in the Stockhausen style) but laugh …) – it communicates not-clearly (blurred, obfuscated, misty, nebulous, opaque; camera obscura in depth and breadth and clarity). Imagine music.
Now imagine I wrote this whole review the way that These New Puritans wrote Field of Reeds, their third album and without a shadow of a doubt their most challenging. It plays with (or breaks) structure and pulls together a diverse range of influences, styles, sounds and levels with none remaining dominant long enough to stamp itself indelibly on the overall experience. The difference, of course, is that while I am trying to communicate a fairly clear and concise response to and analysis of an artwork, that artwork itself is communicating mood. Not thought, not feeling, not even emotion, but mood, a state of being, and that state is either confused or complex and layered depending on your take on it.
Unlike Hidden with its refrains and its unifying drum-and-orchestra, no single track on Field of Reeds can stay the same from start to finish, but internally-consistent disharmonies and almost rhythmic dips and rises in activity and energy create this sub-audible tone that carries you through the 53-minute experience.
At the risk of being vulgar we should talk about songs, and in that context I would talk about Fragment Two. Not officially a single (yet) it is certainly the flagship track from this LP, receiving a very moody video treatment from Daniel Askill, the Australian film artist of surreal art piece We Have Decided Not To Die and Sia’s less surreal Breathe Me.
Fragment Two is a really, really good song. It’s powerful and it’s deep and it’s evocative, and of all the tracks on Field of Reeds it is the best at standing on its own, having a distinct beginning, middle and end. Saying Jack Barnett’s raw, unrefined vocals add emotional depth to the song would be like saying a tsunami adds water to a beach. The signature – and possibly eponymous – reeds come in cleanly under the second half of the track like a tide pushing the song towards the coast where it crashes with a question: in between these islands, to where are we swimming, Jack?
The album never answers that question. Field of Reeds doesn’t say anything, it is a mood, and though that mood is either layered or legion depending on how strongly it’s coming on at any particular moment, if there is a one-word summary it is… contemplative. Someone’s in a complicated relationship and they are trying to think it through. You don’t get a well-ordered, well-organised sequence of cogent ideas, you get someone bouncing around from thought to thought to idea to feeling to wanting to yearning to having to silence but always returning to a question. No track captures this flitting better than V (Island Song) which asks, powers up, churns, changes direction before settling nine minutes later back where it started with a lingering question.
And the same can be said of the entire album. You may not know the answer or even recognise the question that These New Puritans are asking, but we all know what it feels like to ask that question ourselves. It feels like Field of Reeds.