Specifically dense

Michael Woodman is a lover of words. On his most recent album in particular, his lyrics display an affinity for extremely specific and little used terms such as petrichor, the scent raised by rain falling after a long spell of warm, dry conditions, and psithurism, the sound of rustling leaves. Psithurism is, in fact, the name of the album. It’s tempting (to a nerd like me) to read something into the fact that the first of those terms is a neologism, and and the second obsolete, but probably the only lesson to be learned there is that these words exist at the extremes of currency, one way or another. The degree of precision they embody pushes them out to the margins of usage, as with other terms employed here, such as ‘noctivagant’ or ‘cryptid’. At least that’s the charitable view, which I am choosing to take. The other obvious interpretation would be that he’s being deliberately obscure, or trying to sound clever, but I tend towards the former position because semantic precision and specificity of meaning run through these lyrics like stitching, binding a seemingly fragmentary collection of thoughts and statements into a remarkable poetic network.

I’ve never been one for songs that are ‘all about the words’. What that usually means is that the music lacks interest, and it’s always a struggle for me to listen to the lyrics at the best of times—somehow my grasp of phonology dwindles as my musical faculties are activated, and I usually have no fucking clue what anyone is singing, aside from the odd word that pokes out of the mass of mouth-sounds with unwonted clarity. But Psithurism is not ‘all about the words’. The making of a song, of a piece of music that has a lyrical text, is a more complex and nuanced task than slapping a set of verbal meanings on top of some decorative musical structures—or it can be, in the practice of a master. Truly specific, irreducible, unparaphrasable meanings are produced as emergent phenomena at the intersection of word and musical matter, and they are present here in abundance. The majority of the record has a trio sound: electric guitar, bass and drums (with some harmony saxophone and ‘shimmers’). It’s rock. But its phrasing and structure are as specific and unpredictable as the lyrics, a series of gestures that, while completely coherent, conceal or defer their destinations and repetitions, so that they resemble the sentence structures of speech. In spoken language a strophic structure immediately invokes a poetic mode of response, but in music, accustomed as we are to its conventional structural repetitions, the opposite is true. I have not been singing along to this record. I have been entering into its spaces, and celebrating its rites, immersed in sublime musicianship from some excellent players, that is so economically and appropriately deployed that I sometimes forgot anyone was on the other end of the instruments.

Woodman’s word/soundworld is not an abstract one, but full of moments of unexpected, ambiguous concreteness, that tell the listener there’s a complex and detailed narrative behind these isolate surface manifestations—without ever quite disclosing what it is. How did the addressee of ‘Cloned in Error’ come to steal their cypher from the Royal Horse Artillery, and what does that have to do with the rest of the song? The album is like the opening of a novel, dropping the reader into a signifying web whose lineaments will be disclosed as the story unfolds—except that they won’t, and the listener is kept permanently in that delicious state of intrigue and anticipation. It’s in anticipation that dopamine floods our synapses most profusely—reward is an anticlimax, where the biochemical reward system is concerned—and Woodman cleverly exploits this feature of the tension and release cycle to keep the listening experience suspended, in abeyance, waiting for the chorus or the big riff that never comes. (Spoiler: there are some big riffs, but they somehow maintain the inconclusive quality of Woodman’s other creative materials). The experience is not frustrating, but delicious, and the lack of fixed referents is of a piece with the darkness of the songs, and the apparent confusion to which the characters in them are subject. Psithurism is a short record, only just over twenty-five minutes in length, but it is so dense with signification that it feels like a double album—it’s doubtless a progressive piece of rock music, and it happily owns many of the stylistic features of progressive rock, but in creative terms it’s the diametric opposite of the bloated prog-rock opus, with its extended jams and aimless noodling. There’s nothing here that sounds like a solo, but there is enough juicy playing to more than satisfy my desire to admire, and I found myself listening to it over and over, wanting to milk every detail of its remarkable construction and production. I may have mentioned before that Michael Woodman is my favourite lyricist; it’s been interesting to hear what happens when he’s solely responsible for the whole content of an album, rather than working in a band context. This is both more obscure, and in a strange sense more immediate than anything he’s recorded with Thumpermonkey. I’ve rarely encountered a record so dense with meaning, or so well-made.

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