‘Atmospheric ‘– it’s a vague word, a cliché denoting New Age clouds of fluffy feyness or dark, urban backstairs fixes in imaginary shooting galleries. But if I had to choose one word only to describe Twice Born Men, then it’s an atmospheric recording indeed: a soundscape of subtly different moods and shadowy worlds of half-glimpsed images and fractured stories only partially understood through whispered allusions and mumbled agonies. These soundworlds coalesce into something unified, thematically rich and musically complex.
Twice Born Men: a description of veterans returned from the Vietnam War who felt themselves to have undergone a rebirth. Their old way of living, of thinking, of seeing, of feeling, had been irrevocably altered, and they found themselves adrift in a new world after baptism under fire. And there is something in the lonely, delicately lost feeling of Tim Elsenburg’s grainy singing that evokes ghostliness and disconnection, a tenderness forged in suffering. These are the moments, the hints – the fleeting catch of a frozen moment in a relationship, the isolation of wandering, the terrible freedom of having nowhere and everywhere to go for no reason at all – that define the lives of the characters, or perhaps one character, a Tiresias, an Ancient Mariner, an Odysseus, made anew through the voices Elsenburg gives them.
The range of instrumentation and the various musical arrangements have expressive purpose, eschewing eclecticism for its own sake in favour of serving the emotion of each song. Tunes revive the lineage of sea shanties, old-world folk song, Puritan hymns, popular melodies played by fairground steam organs. Americana meets Anglicana, the Appalachians sing to Britten. Lo-fi vinyl-surface scratches against the affectless tone of the opening narrative sampled from the soundtrack of The Music of Chance; the chorus of Truth Only Smiles that rises tunefully, with a sound of not-quite-dead hope, but with no trace of anthemic bombast; the unexpected tinkling of a ukulele as a coda to the keening Kalypso; unidentifiable samples, gently plucked banjos, guitars electric and acoustic quickened with reverb and quiet strumming, surprising percussion effects; the sounds of ocean swells, the creaking of a ship’s timbers, the crackling of ice floes, winds wailing across the night: these are the timbres, the dreamtime rhythms, that evoke for me so many points of reference, so many subtleties of the human heart.
The currents of The Seven Seas wash through this record, bringing me dreams of the Great White Whale and Ahab’s madness, Marlow’s river quest to find the crazed Kurtz, the long lonely wanderings of Lemuel Gulliver, the solitude of Robinson Crusoe; of Lowell’s evocations of old Nantucket, of Keats at the shore of the wide world, of the eternal human need to belong – to other humans, to abstractions, to the unity of nature, to the great unconscious symbolised in the imagery of seas and storms – and our need to be alone and rootless, blown from shore to shore by Fate’s hurricanes and breezes. With the skilful and sympathetic collaboration of his colleagues Anthony Bishop and Alexander Hamer, Tim Elsenburg brings all these felicities to my mind and soul, such is his brilliance as a songwriter, arranger and remixer. Call him Ishmael.