Macon Holt is an academic cultural theorist, writer, and musician. He writes a monthly column for Full Stop on pop music as a utopian political project.

Macon Holt is an academic cultural theorist, writer, and musician. He writes a monthly column for Full Stop on pop music as a utopian political project.

I had intended to begin this piece with what seemed at first to be a clever conceit. I would have attempted to argue that “Fragment Two” by These New Puritans (TNP), from their third album Field of Reeds (2013), was my favorite Christmas song. This attribution would have been in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary, which could be found in the stated intentions of the band’s architect, Jack Barnett, and the content of the musical material when compared to anything else that is normatively understood as Christmas music. The reason for the association is that I found the album on one of the numerous lists that come out at the end of the year and attempt to define the heights of the year’s artistic achievements. An organizational impulse I was far more willing to denigrate until I featured on such a list on this very website. It would have been my next move to attempt to find something clever to say about how organizing and categorizing thinking and expression, born out of the enlightenment, and so elegantly critiqued by thinkers such as Foucault and Deleuze, had reached a strange point of powerful saturation. This seems so banal and obvious to point out now that you can see why I didn’t go with it. What finally defeated this conceit was that its self-imposed premise was to isolate the song in a way which, especially in this case for me, seemed to neglect the full nature of the experience of hearing it, stemming from the complexity of the overall project of Field of Reeds.  

All these ridiculous acrobatics really came out of an insecurity about actually, openly committing myself to a statement affirmatively championing an artwork, which is a tiresome problem indeed. Perhaps made all the more tiresome by the fact that the album I’m talking about has been met with almost universal critical acclaim in the year and a half since its release. To many, this is old news, minds have been made up and my agreeing is not interesting. The additional remarks would then end up being somewhat oblique, for example I could argue that:

While Field of Reeds displays the vaulting ambition and virtuosity of Barnett, whose comfort and ability to fuse 20th Century avant garde orchestral techniques with electronics, post punk sensibilities, slurred vocals and the specter of the pop song form, it can perhaps be criticized as stemming from an Ayn Randian ethico-aesthetic approach to the more amiable project that Mark Fisher (2014) terms ‘Popular Modernism’.  (Holt: 2014, first draft)

But that seems at once too grand and to undercut the actual feelings I have for the record — all for the sake of a glib and perhaps not entirely justified critique. Ultimately, it seemed to have the cynical tinge of a critic trying make their perspective on a work canonical, when regardless of the deadlines, it may be too soon to tell.

To that end, I seem to invest a great deal of personal effort[1] in remaining outside the loop with regards to new music. This can have a considerable social cost, as knowledge about these things functions as a form of cultural capital. Capital which is often required for what is generally considered fun or a good time. I am not against either of these things, still I am suspicious of the imperative to “keep up,” even as it is experienced outside of the mainstream in what are described as “vibrant sub-cultures.” Engaging with a work can take time, and for me this is somewhat intimate and draining. I don’t say this as an Adornian prescription — there are of course countless valid ways to engage with music or any other artwork — but this is my method. It is slow and it can be isolating.

*  *  *

For me this is not an album that makes an overt political statement, though one surely could be read into it. This is evident in the title of the first track, “This Guy’s in Love with You,” which according to the liner notes had to be changed, because the track features a field recording, made by Barnett, of an amateur vocalist performing a half-remembered Burt Bacharach song. Apparently the estates of the songwriters insisted that “the title of the half-recalled song be used in place of TNP’s title.” This sounds quite mad, but it may well be true and it could lead to a whole discussion on ownership and intellectual property. But what excites me more is the last two chords of the piece. Not on the technical level of the harmonic construction, though this is important, rather that (providing you are not listening on laptop speaker) they thrust to the forefront the optimistic edge of modernism that is so often neglected in discussions of the period. And the opening track does the work to earn this, through the fragile incorporations of the crooner’s lyrics, melodies, and phrasing as an already nostalgic half-recollection, lost among complex interwoven fragments of material for orchestral instruments. All the while, the familiar contemporary murmur of time stretched (the changing, by algorithmic processes, of a recording’s rate of playback while preserving the original pitch) audio or perhaps granular synthesis, which unsettles these cultural signifiers. The nostalgia here is not simplistic, the convergence of the disparate but subtly connected musical fragments in this form is totally concurrent with contemporary musical practice. Indeed, use of the half-remembered opens up many of the ongoing discussions on aesthetics, beyond the legalese of intellectual property debates.

This leads to “Fragment Two,” where I began. The opening piano ostinato, with its strong pulse but irregular count, could perhaps earn the label “Prog,” if the clear virtuosity on display were not undercut by the destabilizing slurs of Barnett’s weak but compelling vocals.[2] Precisely recorded drums cut through the swirls of the woodwind, brass and strings as the piece builds. The climax does not come from volume as it so often does in pop but, after a deceptive build drops, a new piano motif emerges — reminiscent of the first but open now, in response to the fidgety pseudo-honky-tonk of the opening. The piece’s ending seems as if it is desperately holding on to the complexity found in the opening, the last lingering remnants heard in the “beat repeat” on the drums — but even this is defeated: things are different now, we are somewhere else.

The rest of the album seems like an exploration of this new place, somewhere that is not always welcoming. The languorous tangle of “The Light in Your Name,” festers until the spectacular, tense climax is released almost by surprise, with a nexus of brass, drums and smashed glass. “V (Island Song),” is a nine minute odyssey that breaks the optimistic modernist façade fractured by the previous song with an orchestra lead by subtle synth groove. It takes us deep down into something both thrilling and uncomfortable. The extended final section acts as almost a punishment for going so deep. These are the necessary steps to recovery. Almost as if whispering in your ear; ‘”Your best thinking got you here.”[3] But “Spiral” reminds us that there is further down to go, slow densely arranged chords, with an emphasis on the rumble of bass, a creepy-as-hell choir and the solo vocals of Elisa Rodrigues seem to induce a shift in perspective that allows for the radical shift — freed of these previous tensions, though not forgetting them, moving somehow beyond them. This makes way for the final section of the album.

Here we find “Organ Eternal,” a song formation of the rhythmic and pattern-based work that is reminiscent of Philip Glass or Steve Reich. However, for Barnett it is clear that these techniques are ways to facilitate a song rather than an exploration of compositional technique. Through “Nothing Else” and “Dream” there is a reprisal of the dark complexity from the album’s midpoint, but it is less frantic now, more careful and controlled. At this point the album ceases to be simply a collection of songs, having earned the right to dwell in its established themes. With the final track, the titular “Field of Reeds,” something emerges, as if it were all a euphoric and terrifying fever dream. Barnett’s rambling fragile vocals are now even more exposed against the gloriously lush (possibly sampled) choir and particularly the Basso Profundo of Adrian Peacock.

But then we wash up on the shore.

*  *  *

This is not a review. At the time of writing, I am not revealing information that has been concealed. I’m expressing a judgment not forming one. I am describing something I have sincerely come to love and I do this to challenge my own impulse towards cynicism. Not to banish cynicism, it is really important, but to make it not what I do every day. So some of you will doubtless hate this record and that’s fine, which you don’t need me to tell you. But, for others, I would like to present you with a holiday gift: an album I have found so transformative I am perhaps still, a year later, too nervously awestruck to adequately communicate what it has accomplished and what it might yet still.

[1] Effort here should be read as, by and large, avoiding posts by friend, virtual strangers and advertisers on social media recommending or making otherwise excited claims regarding “new” or newly discovered music. This may seem to not be particularly strenuous or community minded at this point but I might be able to convince you otherwise.

[2] I have been listening to this album for a year and I can only guess at some of the lyrics. I intend to keep it that way, as the half-heard and the half-remembered seems to be important to the overall project.

[3] This is paraphrased from a footnote in Infinite Jest. It was taken from a genuine slogan in addiction recovery. Such a slogan is borderline offensive to many dedicated to intellectual pursuits, especially if their experience is of a rampant strain of anti-intellectualism. However, if these reasonable criticisms are shelved then this can be an unsettling idea in a worthwhile way.

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