We don’t often get books to review. However, there was a certain inevitability that Scatterland should come my way given that the earliest verses were written a scant few miles from where I sit when Keith James was successfully plying his trade in this area way back in the 1980s.
There was almost always an argument about whether song lyrics were really poetry – some clearly are not, others are. Lyrics are so often constrained by melody and the need for rhymes to emphasise that melody. A perfect example of a song that breaks the rules is Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’ which has only one rhyme and that in the chorus as if to wrap up the preceding lines in a satisfactory way. You can read it, recite it and sing it. Keith’s early song ‘The Swallow’ does something similar – the only rhymes are internal ones and even if you concentrate on them you can’t really force a melody onto the words.
Scatterland is arranged chronologically and I fancy you can trace Keith’s evolution as a poet through it. The early verses tend to be concise and direct like the first entry in the book, ‘Life In The Western World’, a composition he returned to later as ‘Life In The Western World II’. The poets he adapts most are Federico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Dylan Thomas and, once, Leonard Cohen – can I say that these are the voices that influence him most? His live shows interpreting Cohen’s songs are always fascinating: his take on ‘So Long, Marianne’ is a raucous delight for performer and audience, all the better for being so unexpected.
Keith doesn’t distinguish in the book between poetry and songs and sometimes the only clues come from the location in which a particular piece was written. I talked a great deal about rhyme earlier and the point is that his rhymes and metres are often fluid. A piece may settle into a conventional pattern but then he may break his own rules. These are not songs you’re going to whistle along to.
Keith’s writing always has something to say; about the world, about life and about himself. The joy of having words on the printed page is that you feel compelled to read them, especially when his notes give you something extra about their genesis. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know Keith’s music nor the man himself for that matter, if you come upon a copy of Scatterland sit and read for a while.
Author’s website: https://www.keith-james.com/
Read more about Keith here.
‘Circle Song’ – live with Rick Foot: