Last year Erland and the Carnival (Orkney singer Gawain Erland Cooper, Simon Tong and David Nock) sprang out of the undergrowth with a debut album that fizzed with invention and enthusiasm, built around a love of 60s folk rock from both sides of the Atlantic. Their name was acquired by taking Jackson C. Frank’s key US folk revival track, ‘My Name is Carnival’, literally. It was the most straightforwardly enjoyable record of the year, sheer verve making up for a certain amount of unevenness. So it’s no surprise that they’re back again in double quick time, with Nightingale, an album that they clearly had a lot of fun making in the hold of HMS President, a decommissioned WWI navy vessel moored in the Thames.
Nightingale is more explicitly English than its predecessor, studded with carefully chosen reference points from Old English poetry (‘Dream of the Rood’) to Grayson Perry by way of A.A. Milne. The band chose to theme the album around interior landscapes, psychedelic perception and incipient madness. David Nock claims “It’s like being at a Halloween party: you’ll get acid dropped in your drink and wake up naked on a beach in Orkney 17 hours later.” The psychedelics merge with strange phenomena of a different nature, seen in the presence of hauntology electronics and a cover photograph from the Enfield poltergeist haunting.
‘Map of an Englishman’ is where Grayson Perry comes in. Title and concept are taken from Perry’s drawing of the same name, a pseudo-16th century map of an island marked with neuroses and afflictions. The song is stunning, combining lyrics such as “Fear became forest, contained by a mountain range, sex, romance and tenderness, lay down on the page” with a enormous, yearning guitar riff that recalls the knack for tunes they displayed on Erland and the Carnival. It also uses twinkling bleeps and trills, in a successful development from their previous exclusively guitar-based material.
Electronics also propel ‘I Wish I Wish’ which is almost a cousin to Blur’s ‘This Is a Low’ channelling radio spectrum oscillations and melancholy in equal measure. ‘Emmeline’ sets an A.A. Milne poem about the disappearance of a small girl from ‘When We Were Very Young’ to an irresistible carnival organ gallop.
Elsewhere, songs have a more familiar angular guitar sound. On opening track ‘So Tired in the Morning” ghostly electronic whistles and whooshes float behind a choppy, Libertines-like guitar line. Meanwhile ‘The Night’ seems to be one of Erland’s periodic Franz Ferdinand tributes.
The best tracks on the record cluster towards the end, beginning with the title track which features a dark fairy tale about obsession gone wrong over absurdly low, sub-woofing organ growls. It builds to a hymn-like crescendo as “like a dark shadow you just fly into the night, leaving me broke, leaving me shattered.” ‘East and West’ references the madness in Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’, but avoids becoming enslaved by the source material and delivers a tender, disappointed love song set to a gorgeous, delicate tune. ‘Springtime’ is classic Erland, driven by a powerful melody and featuring a wash of layered instrumentation including an increasing startling series of guitar and keyboard noises. The lyrics are more of a secondary concern, but it’s possible to get away with it if you sound this good.
‘The Dream of a Rood’, an interpretation of a 7th century poem which recounts a vision of Christ on the Cross, adorned with gold. The song has an impressively eerie atmosphere, sounding as though it has been filtered through a valve radio and accompanied by the most basic of percussion. Definitely what Anglo-Saxon pop would have sounded like.
Nightingale is, like Erland and the Carnival by no means perfect, and at times the band seem to be trying too hard to prove their credentials. A little more perspective on the material would have made for a leaner, less repetitive album. But nevertheless the end result is by turns charming, creepy, exciting, reflective, and beautiful, and always entertaining.