Oh mate give this shit a rest
Why should you be allowed to think your dream means anything?
These words of poet Alex Rodgers come towards the end of ‘County Moods (part 1)’, the opening piece on Soar, his latest collaboration with musician John Wall. The question these words pose mirrors part of my own thinking while listening to the album. Interestingly, though, not because of anything specific that i was hearing.
Released by Entr’acte a few weeks back, it’s the first time that one of the duo’s albums has been issued with Rodgers’ texts included, here compiled in an accompanying book. This is interesting in and of itself, but it also serves as something of a challenge to several aspects of how i’d perceived their previous output. Alex Rodgers is one of the most enigmatic poetic voices i’ve encountered. On the one hand, his delivery tends to adhere to the same general tone, register and dynamic, yet he’s nonetheless very far from being impassive. On the contrary, he’s often disarmingly akin to a kind of East End manifestation of Viz comic’s gentleman thug Raffles, filling the air with mumbling, possibly-(probably-)inebriated purple prose before threatening to punch your teeth down your throat. Yet just as important is the nature of the words spilling out of his mouth, which veer between stream-of-consciousness and deeply-considered proclamation, thereby encompassing nonsense and profundity, embracing eloquence and profanity. i confess – and, in light of Soar, it does feel like a confession – that there have been many times i’ve felt that it’s not what Rodgers is saying that’s most significant but the way that he’s saying it: a periphrastic paradox melding the coherent and the incomprehensible – or to return to that opening quotation/question, a dream that, beyond its ability to provoke, bewilder and enchant, may well not mean anything.
Yet with Soar that possibility is emphatically challenged. By being published in this way, Rodgers’ elusive texts have been rendered tangible, made more concrete. Beyond this, considering that Rodgers’ words have always preceded Wall’s music – which responds to and essentially ‘clothes’ the words in a supportive, sympathetic soundworld – and, furthermore, that these texts are not always represented verbatim in the finished pieces (certain lines being elided or missing) has the effect of lending the printed texts the quality of an imprimatur, elevating their significance. At least, that’s one way of looking at it; another would be to regard the printed texts as the springboard for not only Wall’s but also Rodgers’ creative spontaneity, never so much reciting his own words as riffing off them, messing around further with their already inscrutable substance, structure and syntax.
Either way, while the presence of the texts offers a challenge to simply regarding them superficially as internal monologues spoken out loud, i have to say that attempting to listen to the eight pieces on Soar with book in hand proved completely impossible. Just a few seconds into ‘County Moods (part 1)’ i found i had to stop reading as it was making it impossible to grasp properly the relationship between words and music. In hindsight, i’d suggest the best way to approach the album is to spend time with and inwardly digest something of the content and character of the texts first, in situ, before experiencing them in their sonic context.
Apropos: regardless of how one interprets them, Wall has always reinforced the primacy of Rodgers’ words, and i think nowhere is that more overt than in Soar. This is their shortest collaboration to date – inasmuch as none of the eight pieces lasts longer than four minutes – and Wall has harnessed that brevity here not by exploring the kind of Webernesque miniature narratives that have typified his solo work in recent years (and heard to dazzling effect on 2016’s SC and Muta Variations) but by setting up quasi-steady states that tread extremely carefully around the text, only acting with more clout to punctuate a line or stanza. It would be inadequate and inaccurate to call it ‘mood music’, though by creating environments with limited modes of action and behaviour, Wall has thereby reduced or at least simplified the sense of dialogue and interaction. That perhaps sounds like a negative remark: yes and no. It’s true that there are times when Wall’s music is so withdrawn that the result sounds like it’s nervously treading water; ‘Mantids’ and ‘The Lanes’ are the clearest examples of this, and easily the weakest tracks on the album.
Yet for a composer so concerned – obsessed, actually – with detail and minutiae, it’s to John Wall’s credit that he’s prepared to be as careful and restrained as this. All the same, the collaboration works better when the music doesn’t simply form a passive backdrop for Rodgers’ words but more actively colours and infuses them, as in the lovely combination of floating pitch bands and dancing glitch-beats of ‘Written In The Stars’ and ‘Slab’, transporting the texts into an entirely new dimension. ‘Unitywoods’ is a continuation of the mischievous R&B appropriations first heard in the duo’s 2015 single ‘Rafia Longer’. It’s hard to tell whether Wall has lowered the pitch of Rodgers’ voice but the resulting blend of heavily processed bass and beats beneath the low, half-whispered words is fabulously heady, nocturnal and noir.
The most telling tracks are where both parties sound at their most natural and demonstrative. ‘Feldgrau Veil’ is a beautifully involving soundscape: Wall’s electronics are again locked into a steady state, yet one that captivates with unabashed prettiness and the effusion of its occasional use of force, while Rodgers’s voice is at its most authoritative. Final track ‘I Soar’ is a close sibling, establishing another kind of ecstatic transfixion that forms an uneasy, potentially dissonant relationship with the implied anger permeating the text. In every sense of the word, it’s an incandescent way to conclude the album, the closing words of which encapsulate the quintessential dichotomy of both Wall’s musical and Rodger’s verbal languages, flitting with infinite freedom between transcendence and banality:
I SOAR you know. in Aldi and Lidl.
Soar is available as a CD and book from John Wall’s Bandcamp – limited to 200 copies so don’t hang about. It’s also available as a digital download, but i’d recommend getting the physical edition while you can as having the accompanying texts makes the experience even more provocative and enriching.