London-based trio Sweet Billy Pilgrim caused quite a stir with their 2005 debut We Just Did What Happened And No One Came, navigating the delicate path between self-referential art rock and melodic folk rock. The question is whether they can repeat the trick with Twice Born Men. Keen followers of Anthony Bishop, Tim Elsenburg and Alistair Hamer will be relieved to hear that the album ticks all the boxes that made their debut so special.
Remix work for David Sylvian has led to a deal with the ex-Japan mainstay’s Samadhisound label (the trio has also remixed tracks by Steve Jansen in recent times). It is easy to see why Sylvian was attracted to Sweet Billy Pilgrim, because the two acts share the same love of pop music and experimentalism and are equally uninhibited in their desire to push the boundaries between the two.
Twice Born Men opens with a vocal sample (excuse me for not being able to place it), describing a Kerouac-styled traveller unable to control his wanderlust. Chief songwriter Elsenburg himself has described the album’s loose concept as follows: “It starts at the end of the heart’s little journey and then works its way back to the beginning, which is actually the end anyway.”
All of which is very tongue in cheek but it does go some way to capturing the restless spirit that inhabits these songs. The introductory Here It Begins segues into Truth Only Smiles, which surfs along on a backdrop of bass clarinet and guitar in a manner that is reminiscent of Wilco at their best, while maintaining a keen ear for melody that Jeff Tweedy has sometimes wilfully eschewed.
For all the buzzing radio static and programmed sampling that bubbles away in the background of Twice Born Men, the album is at heart a melodic beast. The endless chorus of Bloodless Coup may include lines such as ‘you’re never going to feel alive ’til you’re defeated’, but the swooning shiver at the heart of Elsenburg’s vocal is exquisite.
Kalypso is a thing of rare beauty, with the repeated refrain of the chorus providing a focal point for the busy elegance of the music. It is a perfect example of Elsenburg’s musical strategy: “I like it when a piece of music seems to grow from a number of points, with no one sound becoming the focus necessarily; everything carefully feeding the texture and the atmosphere. That way, when something does leap out of the mix, like a voice, say, the impact is all the greater.”
The ‘love’ ballads Longshore Drift and Joy Maker Machinery drift along in an almost shapeless fashion, but serve to accentuate the more instantly melodic songs on the album. And as a key part of the song cycle they tell their own story, their atmospheric meanderings voicing the uncertainties and frustrations of life itself.
The album comes around full cycle with the closing There Will It End, Elsenburg’s heavily overdubbed vocals adopting the role of his everyman protagonists as a harmonium wheezes along in the background.
This is a beautiful, beautiful album, which will appeal to fans of alt country and a very English strand of art-pop. It should also be appreciated by lovers of great music everywhere.