More confounding than astounding, the Southend sonic adventurers’ follow-up to the mighty ‘Hidden’ is tough to love
Genius is a lonely road. Somewhere in the US lurks 14-year-old boy wonder Jacob Barnett: a wünderkind with a higher IQ than Albert Einstein who’s blowing minds with his Big Bang theories. But still his mum worries he’ll find it hard to make friends. Thousands of miles away in Southend-on-Sea, there’s frighteningly stern auteur Jack Barnett (no relation): dreaming up impossible ways of making These New Puritans sound like no other band on the planet. Picture him now, making classically trained orchestras cower, yelling: “FOR FUCKS SAKE, CLIVE. You stick the crackers on the melons like this, and then you smash them with a sledgehammer like that and it will sound exactly like a human skull being split open. It’s not hard, you simpleton.”
Three years ago, TNP seemed to have nailed the tricky task of marrying staggering intellectualism with gut-grabbing violence on the dreadnaught-like, Armageddon-heralding noises of ‘Hidden’, NME’s Album Of The Year 2010. Now, though, after allowing us to cling onto his highfalutin coattails last time around, Jack’s yanked them away on ‘Field Of Reeds’. Devoid of easy access points, it’s sparser and stranger, filled with eerie lulls and sudden, discombobulating rushes of noise. Anyone hankering for a visceral body-and-mind-fuck á la ‘Hidden: Part 2’ is going to feel alienated.
Despite the fog, though, ‘Field Of Reeds’’ finer moments border on being stupendously iridescent. ‘Fragment Two’ is creepily magnificent, all nursery rhyme piano determined to trip you up and leave you stranded in darker, bassoon-heavy climes as Jack laments “Crushed glass by the train line… there is something there” like a wicked kids’ storyteller. ‘V (Island Song)’, meanwhile, is a nine-minute epic that builds from spooky piano to a squelchy, head-spinning groove.
Some of the album’s charms only emerge when you search hard for them, as on the disjointed gloom of ‘The Light In Your Name’ or the dankness of ‘Spiral’, and there are a few ponderous cold spots. Rather than nerve-jangling wonder, ‘Nothing Else’ feels more akin to flat, dirge-heavy mithering, while ‘Dream’, with its guest vocal from fado singer Elisa Rodrigues, comes on like a less feisty reimagining of ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’. And while both are undeniably grandiose, there’s still a nagging sense that you’re waiting for something to smash through the dithering, seize your innards and give them a good shake.
Ultimately, one’s reminded of Radiohead in their post ‘OK Computer’ and ‘Kid A’ uncertainty: following up a stone-cold classic by ploughing headfirst into murkier waters and coming up with something as befuddling as it is brilliant. Lauding ‘Field Of Reeds’ for its scale, scope and ambition is a doozy. Loving it like you loved ‘Hidden’, though? Not so easy.