There’s been a spate of releases over the past couple of years with artists setting to music the works of poets such as Dickinson and Yeats. Now, the Birmingham musician and theologian adds to the list with his interpretation of eight selections from Blake’s Songs Of Innocence And Experience, (note: songs) published in 1794, his exploration of the two contrary states of the human soul to the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution.
It opens with ‘Piping Down The Valleys’, a retitling of ‘Introduction’, the first poem from Innocence in which the narrator, a piper, sees a child sitting on a cloud who inspires him to write happy songs for children to bring them joy, featuring just a sparse acoustic guitar and piano and sung in an unvarnished traditional folk style. Rippling fingerpicked guitar carries along ‘The Echoing Green’, a poem about children at play and the memories it evokes in the old man watching them, that same joy and uplifting images of light to be found on ‘The Blossom’, although the arrangement and delivery here are paradoxically spare and almost funereal in tone.
As with Innocence, he retitles ‘Introduction’ from Experience here as ‘The Bard’, a call to the Earth to renew her light, and paired with ‘Earth’s Answer’ which serves as a response, vowing to break the chains in which man has bound her, again just a sparse guitar arrangement and raw vocals. Again from Experience, ‘Angel’, about missed opportunities and growing old, has a sort of Will Oldham feel with waltzing melody, fingerpicked guitar and the semi-spoken vocals and, opening with plucked guitar, is followed by the near seven-minute ‘A Dream’, the return to innocence from experience, Blower variously singing unaccompanied or with piano/guitar backing while the melody would seem to borrow from the 60s folk classic ‘500 Miles’.
Originally part of Innocence but later moved to Experience, a poem about the impulse of youth rising against the preachers of convention, (‘The Voice of’) ‘The Ancient Bard’ features ambient effects and a minimalist shimmering harp sound before fading into a drone, the collection ending with another near seven-minute track, the largely instrumental ‘A Divine Image’, with its pulsing drone and icy piano notes backdrop, Blower bringing a spooked, Nick Cave-like quality that reminded me of ‘Walk On Gilded Splinters’ to his mixed back, echoey vocals on a poem in which Blake presents Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love as objects of prayer in moments of distress, the number closing with a rumbling effects, and fractured keyboards fade out like a gathering storm.
He’s not the first to set Blake to music, David Axelrod ‘s first album was an instrumental settings of Songs of Innocence, while sung versions have been recorded by The Fugs and, more recently, Martha Redbone, but this is the first interpretation to focus solely on the two collections, and it’s quite magnificent.
Artist’s website: www.davidbenjaminblower.com
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