30th January 2018
On the strength of the cover, with its sombre-looking black and white image of a fledgling gull (I think – I’m not David Attenborough) perched atop a post with the sea behind it, all the way to the horizon where it meets a brooding sky, you would expect The Earth Swan Sings Again to mark a turn towards serious, introspective and altogether less hectic approach to music-making. And in some respects, it is.
While still incorporating the wildly disparate elements of his recent previous albums – of which there are many, and then some (he’s put out a full dozen in the last decade) – The Earth Swan Sings Again feels less manic, more refined, but no less magpie-like in its amalgamation of a broad range of genres. And on this outing, Reaks has gone even further out on the jazz trip he embarked upon with Track Marks last year. This may seem strange for an artist who doesn’t really like jazz, but Reaks is an artist who doesn’t allow genre prejudice to contaminate his creative process. This is postmodern art at its intertextual best: everything is equal, and it’s all material. What counts is how that material is used, recycled, adapted. Etc.
This all makes for a more accessible set of material, but of course it’s all relative, and songs with titles like ‘I Stroked Her Like a Leper’, ‘Her Body Convulsed’ and ‘Today Hurts More than Mercy’ are never going to have the commercial appeal of the mediocre shit of Ed Sheeran or Bastille or whatever cal R1 is spinning on an endless brainwashing loop these days, and that’s before you even get to the music itself. ‘She stretches open like a parasite’s echo,’ Reaks sings by way of a refrain on ‘She Stretches Open (Like a Parasite’s Echo)’. It’s vaguely disturbing, and entirely surreal, but in keeping with his abstract / cut-up approach to the creation of art.
Bringing a more low-key vibe that’s dominated by a post-punk atmosphere, The Earth Swan Sings Again is darker and challenges in different ways from preceding efforts. The basslines are still dubby but less rampantly wild, and more about driving by stealth. The guitars are still choppy, but veering toward the picked and understated – apart from the immense and brain-meltingly OTT jazz/prog wigouts that splurge all over the place unexpectedly and incongruously – they’re altogether more subtle. Well, the guitars, maybe: the OTT jazz/prog wigouts are maybe less so, but they work, and there’s a sense that Reaks knows all of this. As one of the most singular artist practising at this moment in time, Reaks knows what he’s doing, and also knows that one chooses art of commercial success. And this is art.
The Earth Swan Sings Again is dark and stark, low-key yet eclectic, and at times inexplicable. Of course it is: it’s an Ashley Reaks album, and when it comes to walking the line between genius and madness, Reaks has forged a career by joyously straddling it and raising two fingers to convention of any kind. Outré creative talents like Reaks are few and far between, and while the mainstream grows ever safer, ever more diluted, ever more background and by-numbers, the need to artists who rub hard against the grain grows ever greater.