Oilbug Music OB002, 2011, CD/ DD album, 46m 17s
£7 (CD), £5 (DD)
Specifics are important. Little details are the warp and weft of life. Neil Cousin knows this: he knows that a hole in a jumper, a night-time swim in the sea, a man with painted toenails and hair worn in plaits are all important. Not important as in important to someone, or important in respect of something, but important because this is the stuff the universe is made of. All those fleeting glimpses and experiences make up the lives we lead, and it’s the holes in jumpers, with their own particular ragged edges, that make them specifically our fleeting glimpses, not somebody else’s. His songs are full of those detailed specificities, observations that, although made generic the moment they are put into words, locate his meanings in this experience, on this day, with this lover, wearing this jumper. He points us to the personal, and if there are generalisations, if there are major existential observations, we are left to infer them from the particularities of the songs.
Cousin has a way with words, switching easily between the prosaic and the metaphorical, and always finding an image that evokes a plurality of meanings, so that his songs seem to open up into broader possibilities as they progress. He matches his melodic contours and harmonic rhythms very closely to the sense of his lyrics, as well as his vocal delivery – on the title track his rubato vocals precisely convey a sense of uncertainty, which is reinforced in the refrain ‘no-one knows what made them do that’; sonically the production is enhanced by a subtle interweaving of some spooky spatial effects, that barely even announce their presence.
That’s very much the approach taken in all the arrangements: these are song settings, not slabs of stylistically located grooves, not pieces of music in the sense that, say, some Red Hot Chili Peppers tracks are pieces of music, and their status as songs almost incidental. The arrangements are beautiful, full of detail and incident, but it’s very easy to miss them. After listening through to this album, I can remember the songs, and I can recall that the arrangements differed in various ways, but I’m hard put to say what happened in the arrangement for any particular song. Everything is placed in the service of Cousin’s particular meanings.
His acoustic guitar is at the centre of things throughout, with bass on a number of tracks, drums on a couple, percussion on one… there are some gorgeous cello and flute parts, some lovely backing vocals. It’s all there to listen to if you’re paying attention, but even if you’re listening closely to the songs, it’s the most natural thing in the world to drift off, and find yourself thinking ‘wait, what just happened?’ While this is a credit to the functionality of the arrangements, this music geek did find himself wanting to hear a bit of playing from time to time.
The thing about all these specifics, all these carefully curated observations, is that there’s no limit to them. People can keep making songs this way forever, and the method will never be exhausted, because the particularities of human lives are infinite. You can never tell all of the stories, and you can never tell one that’s not unique, and because of that duality, this kind of work both is and isn’t in some kind of a creative cul-de-sac. It will always have more to say, each utterance as vitally important as the genre’s founding works, and the best way to say these things will always be in the era’s version of moderate acoustic rock, because a stylistic setting that draws attention to itself will undermine the meaning of the songs.
So is this an innovative album? No, it’s very far from breaking new ground: it walks on the compacted soil of a well-trodden path. If you are going to listen to it on a superficial level (and with a release like this, ‘superficial’ means ‘without paying attention to the lyrics’) it offers little that you can’t get elsewhere, although it is replete with stirring melody and affecting instrumental textures. What it has to offer is some gently soulful vocal performances, some perfectly judged arrangements, some nuanced instrumental work, and songwriting that is so full of generosity and love that it’s easy to miss the craft and skill that went into it. Most of all, it is chock full of all those little particularities, that make it as unique and as universal as human experience.