Recorded “as live as possible” at Ranscombe Studios over a single weekend in 2014, the eponymous fourth album from Stuart Turner & The Flat Earth Society has presumably been maturing in an oak cask or some such vessel ever since. It is finally about to be released on Vacilando ’68 on delicious vinyl and as a download, and will be decanted live on LV21 on April 15th.
STFES albums always start right in your face, so it’s little surprise that opener Sunday Song finds Turner lying in bed on a Sunday morning imagining a confrontation at work on Monday. Upbeat, tense and announced by incongruous jangly guitars and trumpets, it’s the first of a number of songs on the album which have isolation, loneliness, frustration and claustrophobia interlaced throughout. These topics are handled adeptly though. The Boy Doth Protest Too Much is about being left alone, but banjo-led African rhythms and trumpets are used as a coping mechanism. Ever Decreasing Circles employs a fruity bass slide to distract the listener from “hanging around in this old house while branches scratch the glass” and Unmissing shifts its shape and employs excellent “wasp in a tin can” vibrato guitar as a decoy.
King Of The Hill sees Turner and his resonator guitar standing in the rain on Horrid Hill, a place on the Medway whose most notable attraction is an abandoned hull sinking into the mud flats, watching the waters ebb and flow, just before the whirlwind waltz of Byzantium, a sonic highlight to put on your red shoes and dance to. The birds have flown the tower. There is no more future, yet the song is somehow kept desperately in motion. Every Passing Year I Retreat More Inside My Own Head is a corker too, and may well be the philosophical centrepiece of the album.
Then there is the delightful presence of The James Worse Public Address Method. Part diversion and part “translucerent underbundle”, James (for it is he) delights us twice. First, on A Flarch Of Woundwillow, where he is accompanied by the band, and again on the longer (and, one suspects, ruder) Upon Glanderous Thrane where he performs alone. Imagine Unwin and Stanshall channelled, nay “gazzled” with a “tupperty plossum”. You know the sort of thing. Equally (but differently) glorious is The Pendle Precedent, which sounds like REM with the Muppets on vocals. Wonderful stuff.
In the end, two songs say it all: Glad I Knew You is a warm, widescreen reminiscence of youth that salutes mortality and decline with a single finger and is genuinely moving. Its twin (in every sense) is the glorious Things That Make Up A Life, which is not unlike a short Super 8 film by Belle & Sebastian flashing before your eyes.
A rewarding listen, and the band’s most complete and unified album to date.