Northumbria is only 23 minutes long but I could write pages about this album. Big impact on me then – and I need to pull it into 400 words or so.
Let me start by saying how much I’ve enjoyed the album – and then wander into a bit about art (in its wider sense of ‘creative work’) criticism. There’s generally seen to be a ‘scale’ (of kinds) in art criticism: ‘Isolationism’ – the work of art speaks for itself – at one end, and ‘Contextualism’ – the work of art is placed in its context, whether that be the artist’s life, society, historical context or whatever – at the other.
Let’s take the ‘isolationist view’ of this album. How does it sound? Northumbria is a great listen – there are eight tracks, opening with ’Endings’ which has sounds, snippets of dialogue, all barely discernible apart from the final ‘I was looking for a place that I could call home’. Then there are three instrumentals – beautiful tunes, finger-picked alternate tunings with a resultant clear ring to the playing. Then there are two songs – ConChie has a delicate tone and the hint of a north-eastern accent to his singing. The lyrics are stunning (i.e. I was emotionally stunned when I heard them): Try this verse from ‘The Sense Of An Ending’:
“So now we go to the law
To put in writing what’s been plain for years before
Have someone else deciding
That our kids are just prizes
Like they’re just the spoils of our warOur baby of two
And our darling girl of four”
Followed by this refrain:
“Daddy will always love you, my girls
Mummy’s bottle is her world”
…leading to the next song ‘I Know What You Are’, musically upbeat and lyrically a reaffirmation of self:
“You tried to put me down, but I’ve stayed on my feet
So you can shove your house in Ranmoor
And you can shove your trophy car
You can pretend to those who don’t know you
But I know what you are”
…the last line repeated several times over.
‘Beginnings’ is next – a deliberate repeat of the dialogue snippet styles of the opening track, but with a title and content that give you a sense of, well, beginnings, rather than endings. The album finishes with a simply picked, mostly single note, ‘This Green and Pleasant Land’ – an instrumental version of ‘Jerusalem’ which is deliberately far away from St-George’s-Cross-Test-Match-singing-by-15,000-voices.
The album holds together beautifully and feels like it’s much longer than 23 minutes. It’s also the most emotionally disconcerting thing I’ve listened to for many years. ConChie isn’t Lou Reed, and I’m making no comparison other than the emotional impact, but the only thing that comes to mind as a comparator for me is when I heard Berlin for the first time (probably only ten or fifteen years ago, though it was released in 1973). It’s partly, I think, the sound of the voices – among them a child saying “I want to stay here”. Partly, I suspect it’s the way that the soundings created by alternate tunings in some way shift your sub-conscious from normal expectations of the cadences of the guitar and hence create some kind of emotional discordance.
And it’s partly because of how this album originated. So let me add the Contextualist view, by using ConChie’s own words:
“It was important for me to do Northumbria myself. It was part of reclaiming and rebuilding a part of myself that Domestic Abuse tried to destroy. I also wanted to show others that no, it’s not easy, and at times it can feel like there’s nothing left of you. But if you stand up and move forward, even if it’s only inch by inch, there can be a life after Domestic Abuse…
…The process started as no more than trying to reclaim something of myself by learning to play again after eight years when I’d not been allowed to. It was incredibly hard. My hands didn’t work, or sync up with my brain or ears, and I’d think ‘I used to be able to do this!’
Moving to altered tunings was liberating, because it made me ditch my preconceptions about what I should and shouldn’t be able to do and focused me on the sounds that I was making. The music that was coming out, though, was very evocative and demanded a cohesive, immersive approach when it came to mixing, mastering and sequencing.”
Thematically, Northumbria takes you on a journey from the dark to the light and towards personal renewal. Whether you just listen to it or take in the back story, it’s a rather good album. For ConChie, “Reclaiming family, home and love, Northumbria reinvests each as central to our capacity to endure and our ability as humans to survive and rebuild ourselves. It is a fiercely joyous redemptive music.”
Artist’s website: https://drawuptapdown.wixsite.com/conchie
There are no videos to go with Northumbria but you can hear the songs on Google Play or preview tracks via the store link below.