Born in France and raised in Scotland, Burnell is an unpredictable quantity when it comes to his idiosyncratic approach to folk. So it’s hard to say what those who were into his recent two albums featuring reinterpretations of traditional songs are going to make of Glass Knight, an all original, full-on ‘folk opera’ melding of medieval and futurism described as “an apocalyptic astral adventure” that, joined by a string section, bassist Oliver Whitehouse, guitarist Nathan Greaves, drummer Ed Simpson and partner Frances Sladen on backing vocals, extends the progressive, often experimental soundscape of 2020’s Flowers Where The Horses Sleep while also echoing its drawing on myths as it follows a central character and with a recurring reference to glass.
Indeed it opens with the faint sound of breaking glass before ‘Where Planets Collide’ explodes with a fury of drums and electric guitar serving to introduce the titular character, caught in the space between “a crack that’s formed in space and time” and act as a commentary on our relationship with technology as “A premonition of dreams/Showed me/A thousand live wires crawling into your brain/Hive-mind, life-blind, plug yourself/Into the ego-machine”, the line about going “Back through the looking glass” adding an Alice reference.
The reflective ‘Out Of These Worlds’ strips things back with its tremulous piano notes, rippling electronic ambience and floating, part-treated, vocals as, in that Space Between, the character meets his maker who announces “I can show you some of what is done/And what’s to be” but adds “I can help you look/But I can’t make you see”. Taking his cue from Saint-Exupéry’s ‘The Little Prince’, the album contains a series of vignettes, the first coming with the upbeat synth-pop retro feel of ‘Last Rain’ with its catchy melody line, handclap-like percussion, reverb guitar, vintage synths and ‘do do do do ’ hook on which young couple, abandoned on their planet in the midst of an apocalypse ,decide to dance out their last moments amid the destruction (“When the Glass Rain falls/We’ll sit and look at the sky/I’ll see the last, red rays/Reflected back in your eyes”).
If that has hints of climate change, the theme is magnified in ‘Played My Part’, a slower, reflective and folksier number punctuated with a catchy chorus and soaring strings that speaks of the shared responsibility/blame for the ecological shifts (“If everyone who ever lived/Met in some eternal bliss/To share their stories and what they’d left/When they turn to look at us/And say, Just look at what you’ve done/Still, I played my part”), the lines “Hey, pilot, where we going/Been riding on this ship so long/You steering us home/Or to the apocalypse” echoing the convict transportation in ‘Look At Us Now’ on the previous album.
Given a marching drum rhythm rock setting with hints of both Bowie and Pink Floyd, ‘Glass Knight’ is a retelling of an old Saffron Walden folk tale about a mysterious medieval figure tasked to save the town from a basilisk who caused all who looked in its eyes to die (here a worm with “Scales of steel, laying all the fertile ground to waste”), killed by seeing its own reflection in the glass, recast with a new ending that holds up a mirror to contemporary society, which, of course can’t face what they see (“They saw their imperfections mirrored in your face/They were sobered and sickened/Ashamed by their own disgrace/So they fractured and smashed you and kicked you into the ground”).
A second vignette, a reflection is also central to ‘Looking Glass’, this time not Alice but Snow White, recounting the fairy tale from the mirror’s perspective (“I once fell for a lunatic/She loved me well for just one trick/Every day, she’d hang me on her wall/And ask if she was beautiful/And she was – god, I loved her so/Until I met a girl called Snow”) to a tinkling piano riff and a steady drum beat, a questioning of what constitutes beauty of judging yourself and others by notions of physical perfection (“There’s other kinds of beauty too/See those lines/Crawling from her eyes/Each one was carved there by a smile”).
It’s back top 70s pop with the soul-tinged ‘Don’t Lose Your Faith’ that again addresses self-worth (“You came from boys don’t cry/And never hurt”) and feelings of being misunderstood and isolation (“Did you ever dream/You’re made of glass/And when you hold somebody/Your skin just cracks”), and that you “Keep finding open doors/That go nowhere”, but offering the reassurance that “You’re not the only one” so “Don’t lose your faith”.
Another vignette , starting with drone before guitar lays down a steady walking rhythm, joined by Hammond and drums and featuring soaring guitar solo, ‘Lucy’ is offered up as the biography of a rock star (“She had cheeks carved from chalkstone/And a pair of celery eyes/She’d win the minds of all the boys with that signature lipstick smile… She spun a wicked lyric and sang that kind of tune/That wormed its way into all the kids’ hearts/And made them call it their own”), a softly sung semi-spoken (Bowie meets Dylan) swaying gradually building number that serves as a cautionary tale (“there’s no time like never to squander all of your dreams/So watch out for this girl, ’cause she’s not quite what she seems”) wrapped up in a metaphor (“There’s a clock in the corner/And he’s really quite deranged/He’s got every segment of your life/Oh so neatly arranged/There’s a skeleton in his closet/And he’s not sure just what to do/To hand himself on in/Or to tick his last tock for you”).
Swathed with strings and more fine work from Greaves, ‘The Raven Cries’, is another with a classic vintage Bowie rock base, described as about “When you want to help but you don’t know how” and again parcelled up with metaphor and imagery (“He’s painted black/From feather-tail to finger-nail/And there’s coal dust in his eyes/He hides all his colours inside/And he waits for the voice he needs to hear/But the cat has got its tongue/So he tries to pretend he’s back when he was young”), chiming with the theme of being misunderstood because you’re not part of the flock (“Because he dares to sing a different song”).
Echoing a line from the opening track, it closes with the nearer six-minute, ruminatively strummed identity-questioning ‘Moonlighter’s Child’ as, accompanied by piano and swelling strings, the character comes to the end of their journey, reflects and must make choice, whether to simply give up or struggle on into the unknown, a questioning of perceptions (“Am I really being/Or am I really sane/Or am I just an actor/Who doesn’t realise they’re on the stage/Am I really guilty/When someone shifts the blame/Or was I just in the wrong place at the right time”) and asking “If there’s a god in the sky looking down on high/Can he tell me, please, am I living it wrong or right… are we all the same/Just sleeping out and waking into different lives/Over and over again”. The ambiguous choice is do we “keep on running on into the night” or turn around and look into the light? And, to echo an earlier question, do we look or do we see?
Coloured with glam, psychedelia and 70s folk/pop, Glass Knight is a redefining album in much the same way as ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway’; to quote Dan Whitehouse, welcome to the glass age.
Artist’s website: www.joshuaburnell.co.uk