Alex Rex – Otterburn
Tin Angel – 29 March 2019
One of the impressive things about truly original and important artists – Bob Dylan, say – is their ability to reinvent themselves continuously without ever losing track of the thread of their own unique sonic identity. Every second of every great Dylan album could only be Bob Dylan. The difference between Dylan songs in various periods is vast, yet the unifying themes, the lyrical and musical echoes, the sly references that link, for example, One Too Many Mornings to Tangled Up In Blue to Caribbean Wind and beyond combine to produce a body of work so self-sufficient, so pulsating with its own life, that it is practically an ecosystem.
When former Trembling Bells drummer and songwriter Alex Neilson released Vermillion, his first album under the Alex Rex nom de plume, more than one reviewer mentioned Dylan. At the time, the comparison might have appeared superficial: sure, songs like God Make Me Good (But Not Yet) and Postcards From A Dream nodded towards a vaguely Dylanesque sound, one in which Blonde On Blonde, Nashville Skyline and Desire existed simultaneously, but weren’t there fresher, more interesting things going on in Neilson’s songs? In hindsight, and with a full overview of his songwriting career at hand, it seems extremely perceptive
This becomes ever more apparent when listening to the latest Alex Rex album. Just as on Blonde On Blonde you might find a snappy and brutal takedown of the singer’s former lover next to a nostalgic love song to his future wife, on Otterburn you will experience demented guitar-driven odes to masochistic sex rubbing shoulders (and other body parts) with the saddest and sincerest of elegies. And Neilson is unafraid to delve into his own musical past to come up with those often uncanny musical echoes: Otterburn’s last track, Smoke And Memory (which I will talk about in more detail later) is almost a musical mirror image of Seven Years A Teardrop, the song that closed Carbeth, the first Trembling Bells album, almost exactly ten years ago.
But beyond the racy lyrics and the musical cleverness, this album has one unavoidable guiding light: Neilson’s youngest brother Alastair. Two years ago, on a canal boat called Otterburn, Alastair died. The grief that Alex Neilson felt was poured into this set of songs, and most of them pay homage to Alastair in one way or another. Opener Lay Down In Ashes is tender and tragic, soaked in weeping lap steel and the backing vocals of former Trembling Bells singer Lavinia Blackwall. Like a lot of the great country songs that deal with death and mourning, it contemplates complex ideas that belie the simplicity of the form. And Neilson immediately proves that his knack for startling lyrics is as strong as ever, as he twists his melancholy with dark seams of humour. It’s power is, if anything, intensified by its positioning directly before the aforementioned S&M freakout, Amy, May I, which features Belle and Sebastian guitarist Stevie ‘Reverb’ Jackson having an absolute blast, while lyrics like ‘I need you like a walnut needs a hammer’ bring a tear to the eye in a very different way to much of the rest of the album.
The title-track introduces hand drums, an eastern sensibility and some recordings of birdsong, which along with Blackwall’s vocals give off the distinct aura of mid-period Incredible String Band before the song collapses into something darker and more strange. This marks the point where the album, already deeply imbued with melancholy, seems to turn the corner into fully-charged despair. Always Already, a duet with Blackwall is a resigned breakup song in the style of many of those early Trembling Bells tracks that marked them out as a kind of folk-rock Abba. But even in its most despairing moments, this album is not devoid of some kind of hope, though it is often a lowly kind. Master, which is a vivid conversation in song form, full of beseeching pleas and at times almost metaphysical or at least prayerful. Led by slow piano and punctuated by dusty horns, it almost resembles Leonard Cohen.
In fact, many of the songs on Otterburn can be heard as conversations. In the case of Brother, the conversation is a one-sided one: ‘I called you by your name’, Neilson repeats but, heartbreakingly, there is no answer. On Latest Regret (think No Other-era Gene Clark but with some impossibly pretty piano running through it) the engagement with love and death is more physical. And then there is the haunting a cappella of the closing track, Smoke And Memory. Here Neilson, in two brief minutes, provides a lasting and beautiful tribute to his brother while also examining very nature of loss and the impossibility that anything can be truly lasting. Here Otterburn’s greatest sadness and most potent hope are mixed together in the foaming canal water. It is the distillation of the emotion at the core of the album, and a huge part of that emotion is confusion: confusion about love, about the fragility and unfairness of life, perhaps, or the question of what remains after the human body is gone.
To his credit, Neilson realises that life is patterned by confusion; there is no way to solve its riddles or to cheat death. What he has been able to do here is to take an event – a very real event, and one saturated in the most visceral of emotional responses – and create from it a single cohesive work of art that nonetheless functions as an integral part in an impressive and growing catalogue of work. It might be helpful to think of an artist’s career as a house in which each room represents an album. In Neilson’s case, these rooms may be filled with varied and distinctive artistic creations, all of which can be combined to create a schema that runs through the whole building. Or at least that has been true up until now. Otterburn is still recognisably – and brilliantly – part of that structure, but these are songs hacked out of the rock of grief and raw emotion, and they are something quite special.