If anyone’s channelling England’s dreaming, it’s Richard Youngs with his baffling, absorbing fragments that seem simultaneously alien and a fundamental part of us. The debate about Youngs always seems to get hung up on trying to describe and categorise: “Is this album more ‘avant-garde’ than the last” or “Is he still experimental, or has he sold out?” This is definitely missing the point. His music is highly original, and seems to exist to defy and destroy categories. Nor do definitions help to understand what you’re hearing. He experiments, for sure, but the significance of his work is in its ability to help the listener value sounds and musical experiences they might otherwise dismiss.
Amaranthine is the latest instalment in a talented and entirely unpredictable career that stretches back over a series of twenty-plus albums, all remarkably different. He’s so prolific that it’s easy to miss an instalment or three of his oeuvre, by which time he may well have passed through several distinct phases of creation. His 2010 album, Beyond the Valley of the Ultrahits, was unexpectedly pop and used conventional song structures to great effect. Last year’s Amplifying Host definitely did not, sounding like deconstructed folk with the individual elements separated out and fixed with a puzzled, fascinated gaze.
Clearly, it’s the sign of a quality album when you need to look the title up in a dictionary. It’s an even better sign when the title is as well chosen as Amaranthine, which turns out to mean ‘unfading’, after a mythical, dark purple-red flower that never fades. Enya seems to have had the idea first, but let’s skip over that. The album in fact does fade, improvisation fuzzing in and out like a flickering consciousness. It consists of four long tracks. The first, ‘Hopeless Warrior’ begins with tribal drumming rattling and clattering, and Youngs’ thin, high voice declaiming in a distorted, rhythmic pattern. A creaking electric guitar swaps registers, layering over the polyrhythms. It’s impossible to tell exactly what words are being sung, but they include the refrain “It’s just a hopeless warrior I am.” The song is plaintive and melancholy, and intensely awkward in a Jandek manner.
The album then segues into ‘State I’m In (California)’ which seems to mix mental with physical states. The vocals become clearer, but the drums become choppier and even more complex, sharing equal status with the singer. The rhythms are fascinating and impenetrable, and Youngs seems to be in a state of confusion himself. He sings “How can I know? / the state I’m in / don’t come easily / California”’ in a repeating, overlapping round with himself. It’s a stunning track.
‘Everybody Needs a Sword’ contains the repeated phrase “In London I cannot see / everybody needs a sword” over low electronic throbbing and more mind-bending percussion. Youngs sounds urgent, like a street preacher with a message that nobody will understand in the same way. He sings in a mantic reverie that ‘Nobody needs a vision’, but it sounds as though his vision is just more penetrating than everyone else’s.
Finally, ‘The Power Come Out’ is a sort of ecstasy in which Youngs seems to chant “Ommmm…” as he sings revelations such “Power come out / I heard one thousand calls”. A meandering, treble guitar solo floats over the top, and the percussion whirs and chunters. At times it sounds almost blissed out, although the white guitar noise that cuts in halfway through could either be the hum of eternity or something vast and menacing approaching from a long way off. It’s immense and unfathomable, a song struggling with the contradictory nature of being. And, let’s face it, there aren’t many people around at the moment making music with that level of ambition.
It would be a mistake to dismiss Amaranthine as unlistenable, wilfully perverse music, although some undoubtedly will. It’s disconcerting, at times frustrating, but also rich and strange with the power to repay the listener with compound interest. Richard Youngs is a musician worth listening to, and that really means listening actively, with a mind receptive to the unexpected. Amaranthine is fractured and even distraught, but it’s also a deep purple, unfading thing of beauty.