Romanticism and the notion of Englishness are at the heart of the Pastoral music of the likes of Vaughan Williams and Elgar. Whilst Gazelle Twin’s music exists in a totally world to Lark Ascending or Pomp And Circumstance (for example), it’s probably about time that someone took the time to assess just where we are as a nation. The cover of Pastoral alludes to the album artwork that graces the Deutsche Grammophon classical releases, suggesting that there are big themes to be tackled in a most serious manner, but also that traditions are fair game for Gazelle Twin.
On this evidence, Elizabeth Bernholz (aka Gazelle Twin) is more than up for the job. The video for Hobby Horse sees her resplendent as a kind of Adidas-clad court jester, draped in red and white and with disturbing grin at the ready. Whilst the themes of Pastoral are serious and at times disturbing, there’s a fair bit of humour and scathing satire at work here too.
Yet Bernholz has a habit of squeezing the full effects of a panic attack into her compositions. Claustrophobic, scratchy and disjointed, there are any number of moments on this album during which her ability to trigger anxiety is razor sharp. Perhaps we all need a dose of anxiety after all, given the strange and uncertain times in which we are currently living. In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, the country has become divided, and some distinctly unpleasant undercurrents have started to bubble to the surface.
With this in mind, Bernholz takes notions of Englishness and combines them with small town gossip, oppressive noise and beats, sharpened wit and withering satire. At the moment, England is rich pickings for satirists and musicians – there’s almost too much to choose from – and with Pastoral, Bernholz is in fine form. Musically, it’s a masterclass in appropriation and using signifiers. Utilising traditional instrumentation such as the recorder, choral vocals (Sunny Stories) and the harpsichord and mixing it with her oppressive electronic approach, Pastoral not only cuts up notions of patriotism and what it means to be English, but also uses a smart and informed sonic palette.
Going one further, the reworking of Jerusalem takes Blake’s unofficial national anthem and retools it completely. Gone are the notions of Jesus having a sojourn o’er hill and dale; instead, we are presented with a someone phoning in a report of an abandoned vehicle being mocked by an unforgiving Mr Punch. Tearooms presents the Pastoral ideal – acres, hedgerows and steeples, but evidently Gazelle Twin finds the surroundings to be baffling. “I don’t know what I’m doing here,” she intones, confused by the pastoral picture she finds herself trapped in. Better In My Day takes the chant often heard being uttered by anyone over the age of 50 who has problems with migration and the state of the youth of the nation (amongst other things). The result is a terrifying chant – where the golden days are shown up as being intolerant, racist, and phobic of practically everything.
There is absolutely no doubting that Pastoral is a phenomenal piece of work. It’s a brilliantly informed artistic statement and a state of the nation address that cuts right through. It must also be said that it is a quite challenging and difficult listen. If you suffer with panic attacks or anxiety, be warned that this will not be a comfortable experience. That said, Pastoral is not a comfortable experience for anyone, and nor should it be. Times are indeed strange, but we are fortunate to have Gazelle Twin to help make sense of them.