Both sides of the street

Songs can be many things. In written literature there are names for them, but songs, we seem to think, are all first and foremost songs. They can be collections of images, the sort of things we call poems when they’re printed. They can be short narratives, stories as they are known elsewhere—the ballad is a genre of this type, but not all story songs are ballads. They can be discursive, philosophical, essays set to music. Most of the most popular ones are the same sort of things as Mills & Boon romance novels, as far as I can tell. It’s their formal structure that makes them songs: words and music, usually in a repeating format with a refrain that is revisited several times, and not too long. But that formal structure can encompass as many different kinds of content as the printed book. To say that James Domestic’s Carrion Repeating is a collection of songs is like telling you a book has words in it. Well, they’re not all the same sort of thing, but many of the songs on this album are character sketches. Several have an implicit narrative, like ‘Holiday’ or ‘Is That You?’, and the narrator of ‘Push On Through’, driving late at night, imagines the stories of people he encounters. Other songs are more static or poetic in their affect. ‘Itchy Itchy’ and ‘Faze Out’, the two songs with which the album opens, are evocations of mental states. But wait, what am I leaving out here? Oh yeah, music. That is the real difference between songs and texts, the unifying factor that makes it worth considering them together in the way that we don’t with, say, haikus and biographies. I don’t mean the presence of music per se, but the fact that there is an interaction between a set of words, which have a literal meaning with all kinds of possible affective connotations, and a sequence of sounds that have an immersive and immediate affective meaning. Lazy songwriters soundtrack their words, like the sweeping strings that tell you what to feel when you’re watching a Hollywood movie, but the good ones exploit the capacity for these two streams of signification to illuminate each other in unexpected ways, often producing meanings that are not present in either when taken in isolation. James Domestic does just that.

I know his work as a vocalist from the Suffolk hardcore band, The Domestics, in which he snarls and growls a visceral torrent of political confrontation. There’s wit and irony in his lyrics there, but in that musical context those nuggets tend to lurk, easter eggs for the attentive listener. The songs on Carrion Repeating are presented with considerably less atavistic textures, drawing on a wide range of musical interests, and the lyrics are spoken not shouted (even sung, at times!). Dub, post-punk, electronica, even hints of funk can be heard in these arrangements, along with noisy guitars, when they’re warranted. There’s a lot of light and shade, even in an ostensibly angry song like ‘Bean Counter’, and the lyrics are shot through with accessible humour. Sometimes the irony is hilariously obvious, sometimes it’s layered. The bittersweet digital piano melody that introduces ‘Holiday’ is perhaps a clue to its narrator’s ambiguous position. Is this just a reasonable response to the export of British suburban values, or is it an unreflecting and moralistic judgement passed on somebody who’s probably neurodivergent? James Domestic isn’t going to tell us, because he doesn’t need to. His song opens up the space for a question, and questions are always a lot more fruitful than answers. You can hear it either way, and it’s a satisfying, amusing, and recognisable perspective from both sides of the street. All the songs here are keenly observed, wittily realised, and delivered with panache. They make as much space for atmosphere as they do for James’s redoubtable verbal wit, and the album as a whole manages to come off as a serious artistic statement, that’s also as entertaining as hell.

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