M.G. BOULTER – Days Of Shaking (Hudson)

Days Of ShakingHaving offered a musical wander around the sights and characters of his Southend on Sea home town with both Clifftown and A Shadow Falls Over New Brighton, Boulter now offers more gently melancholic but more metaphysical musings on contemporary suburbia and the mundane day to day realities with Days Of Shaking, veined with the rumour, mystery, urban myths and magical thinking (the belief that specific words, thoughts, emotions, or rituals can influence the external world) we use to bring shape to our lives, expectations and hopes.

Featuring Boulter on guitars, pedal and lap steel, Harriet Bradshaw on cello, Lucy Farrell on saw with Helen Bell on violin and viola, pianist Tom Lenthall and bassist Neil McSweeney, the album, produced by Andy Bell, opens with the title track, conjuring the contemplative side of Paul Simon as the protagonist recalls a childhood memory of what he believed to be a UFO sighting (“it hovered above my house, I was maybe twelve, there were triangles of red and green”) but in retrospect thinks “maybe it was a trick of the night, unknown movement in the atmosphere”. But, in world where “pillars will fall to the ocean” and “we are blind to ourselves”, still clings to the idea that “maybe it was a hope for something bigger than ourselves”. It ends with the image of “a tiki bar covered in Christmas lights” and a sense of being lost (“I want something I can’t find/We drive around dark tenements searching”), a feeling that permeates.

The more uptempo, skittering ‘Quiet’ with its fiddle feathers is one of several on a theme of identity (“I’m an early dawn riser/burnt sugar in my veins …between fever sheets I dream and dream/a muddle of bones in bed/until the morning/there is another version of me/I have grass snake skin/left on the bank of a river somewhere”) as he wishes “if only the world could remain this quiet”.

Very much in a similar musical mood to ‘René and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War’, ‘10 Habits Of Successful People’ is at once a bittersweet memory of old friends (“we shared some moments in school shows, they said my performance was better than yours… and Justin or James, that guy every girl liked/well you’re together now/and photo booth photos do not lie/and it made me feel sick just to think of it, the camera clicks as you stumble into the kiss”) and of different fortunes (“now I punch through some numbers in a café on Sundays/I mark my time through the week”), but is ultimately about self-validation (“I don’t need a feature or rely on pictures in magazines to know who I am”), even if the closing lines “I have dreams to carry me, digital screen, cathode ray, static snow/I get lost in days” are redolent with sadness.

The shimmering, falsetto ‘Silver Birches’ with its female harmonies again muses on themes of identity and purpose (“I move with the comfort of the crowd/they’re like silver birches and I’m gliding through them/I move like a fish, unravel like a leopard on the stairs/I don’t know what I’m doing/but I feel I’m getting there/I always stay too long in some or other restaurant/I don’t know when to leave, or even to stand up/I just stir the black in my coffee cup, and do cartwheels in my mind”). Here too he asks “are you not scared of the things you don’t want to be?” reflecting on changes and choices (“Luke he used to play the bass in my band, he smoked a lot of cigarettes he carried my amp/but those days are gone, rusted in the snow…if I was an actor I would play the sleeping man/bones heavy with slumber/I feel I could sleep forever…I don’t watch the news …at night I go out walking when all the houses are quiet”) as he concludes “you can only outrun yourself for a while” with the toxic warning “don’t you come too close, for like Medusa’s eyes/I can boast that I’ll turn you to stone”.

Co-written with and featuring Jenny Sturgeon on vocals and keys, the steel-coloured ‘Talk To Me Of Water’, set to a backdrop of Canada, is a dreamy echo of early Jackson Browne that is again formed around memories and loss (“the steam on the mirror/tracing outlines from your fingers/a heart from long ago/broken now, it comes and goes… fast moving rivers their currents flow/takes you where you need to go… your voice through the door/softly spoken brings me to the moment/Canada has gone/Bled now into other continents.”).

A song about how we’re not all fated to flounder in the darkness but that “we have hearts that can sing in these small towns”, the ethereal, organ-backed ‘James Mason’ is titled for the late British actor (“why this actor and not some other”) who apparently dropped by in a dream (another reference to being dressed in a different skin wishing for “cupboards full of love”) to whisper “you’re not destined for dust/we are all not just destined for dust”.

Pulsing bass underpins the vocally double-tracked ‘The Masterless Man’ which, as you might surmise, is about being free (“from magistrate and ministry”), a pastoral idyll of sylvan liberty (“I will sleep in the fields, or against a standing stone/I’ll avoid market towns and open roads/I’ll navigate the marsh as if it were my own…I will be the horizon and everything within it/I’ll have no method or means/no purse of property”).

Displacement (and perhaps being on the road) informs the fingerpicked ‘Hotel At Midnight’ (“I’ve been walking the hotel at midnight/when all the corridors are bare/I move so quiet/nobody knows I’m there….I am an astronaut/my own jewel in the dark… and now I stand, the drinks machine hums/the only drone in this silence”) with shades of Robert Frost to lines like “God speed the rider in the night/he has hard yards and is yet to find/so bends the road so turns the knife”) returning to images of “young skin in the grass” and the serenity of finding silence (“in quiet rooms under clean sheets/our ghosts whisper themselves to sleep”).

Taking a vulpine sighting as its impetus, the strummed ‘Fox Running’ pulses through anxiety and neurosis (“my tongue is loose, it’s always flapping/like a dead man talking to god/I cannot stop talking/I cannot stop talking for the life of me”) and possibly a disjunct between modern life and the natural world (“you are cheap hotels, you are mini bar bills…you are business cards on cork boards/in cafes where you hide yourself/smoke moves round your head how you like but treadmill days come to fill your time…you spit venom and you drink the mountains and you want to see salad days/photos of you look great but you cannot hide the camera shakes”).

The imagery of nocturnal animals is picked up again in the nihilism shadowed ‘The Jaws Of Nothing’ and another state of limbo (“between darkness and waking I stood in a garden and glossed over prayers with my tongue”) with its defence mechanisms (“there are things people hide from each other …I am wise I am broad, safe in these jaws/limbs like verbs, teeth like silver”).

As you will gather existentialism courses throughout the album with a lingering sense of dread of becoming like ghosts, as in the strings-brushed Simon-esque ‘City Map’ where he sings “standing below heroic fishing photos on a wall, she holds her hands like a bible/‘I am the one you won’t remember’ she whispers as the piano note falls from the song and fireworks burst from the neighbour’s lawn”, and of rebirth and transformation (“is it true you can wake up somewhere new?/shrug it off and transform”).

Days Of Shaking ends with ‘Blonde Pine’, a culmination of the enigmatic threads of identity, memory and the past, seeking to rise up from the darkness to step into the light (“shining bright against the void/you can be the song and sing it/you can be the bullet from a gun or a whip or a word or a reason”) but ultimately weight down by the fear of impermanence and being lost to time (“we tracked footprints twice the size of any man’s across scrubland/until they stopped dead/and we carry our great grandparents’ names and stutter through a darkness/my neighbour used to water/her garden azaleas/then she passed and now no-one cares to remember …there was golden gilt on our lips, all the pretty chords of our life played out and the immensity of it/will these memories die when i am gone?/Skulls with perfect teeth will chatter to no-one”). listen and you’ll hear the whispers of ‘Hamlet’, ‘Macbeth’, ‘The Tempest’, Emily Dickinson, TS Eliot, Christina Rossetti and more, their spirits haunting an album that calls upon you to surrender yourself to its repeat play embrace, drift in its reveries and perhaps find a catharsis in your own magical thinking.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.mgboulter.co.uk

‘Talk To Me Of Water’: