I wol with lusty herte fressh and grene
Seyn yow a song, to glade yow, I wene,
And lat us stynte of ernestful matere.
Herkneth my song, that seith in this manere.
(Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales)
I’ve had The Belbury Tales, Jim Jupp’s fourth LP as Belbury Poly, a good couple of months now. I’ve listened to it more often and enjoyed it more completely than any other release so far in 2012. It’s an unusually satisfying record, actually. It just feels so much like the culmination of something, a kind of apotheosis, a near-perfect realization, after almost a decade, not just of Jupp’s own project, but that of his label, Ghost Box, too. And that’s just not something that happens very often. Hence, the satisfaction. Here’s my problem though: As endlessly rich and fascinating as this record is, it also feels totally over-determined from a critical perspective. The cold specter of Hauntology looms dauntingly large. There’s so much to say, yet so little that’s new.
We know, for instance, that Jim Jupp and Julian House, Ghost Box’s two founders, grew up together in the south of Wales where they bonded over a shared love of HP Lovecraft, sci-fi, and weird films, and, most importantly, that all this is utterly palpable in their music today. Sonically, we know too that library music, psychedelia, prog, TV soundtracks, incidental music, and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop are the common reference points — the Hauntological ‘data,’ if you like — and that the effect of their combination tends to be a strange coincidence of wistful nostalgia (both for a particular period of recent British history and the sense of futurism that apparently went with it) and the undeniable eeriness of time having been wrenched somehow “out of joint.” “Not just for Belbury Poly but for the whole of Ghost Box,” Jupp explained in an interview in The Wire in May 2009, “it’s 1958-1978 and it’s all at once, we take little slices through that continuum.”
For Ghost Box, one particularly important aspect of the music of this period was the overtness with which it embraced a specifically British heritage, the kind of “visionary” folk described by Rob Young in his excellent history Electric Eden. Ghost Box’s music always draws a line between more contemporary UK folk traditions and those of its deep history: back through Britain’s medieval towns, inns, and churches to its eternal countryside and the days of Albion. Along with modernist-style municipal amenities like the Polytechnic, the Public Library, and “the striking Community Fellowship Church,” Belbury — the (borrowed) fictional town of Jupp’s imagination — boasts a haunted manor house, a Neolithic stone circle, and “foreboding Iron Age ramparts” (The Wire, Nov 2006). “An uneasy mix of ancient and modern,” as the liner notes to The Owl’s Map put it.
None of this has changed on The Belbury Tales. All the standard reference points are still there, as is Jupp’s characteristic playfulness, melodicism, and attention to detail. The effect has simply been amplified. The contributions from Jim Musgrave on drums and Christopher Budd on bass and electric guitar help a lot in this respect. Musically, everything is sharper, more detailed, richer, fuller, in higher resolution. And the vocal tracks are all exquisite. From the sheer strangeness of “Cantalus” through the naivety of “Green Grass Grows” to the earthy, rural beauty of ”The Geography,” it’s these tracks most of all that mark this out as a “folk” record. It’s not that vocals have never featured before, of course. But on tracks like “Caermaen” from 2004’s The Willows or “Wetland” from The Owl’s Map, previously the vocals were always heavily treated and distant-sounding — shadowy, undecidable. On “Caermaen,” for instance, Jupp took the vocals from a 1908 cylinder recording of a tune called “Bold William Taylor” and “changed the speed and pitch and reconstructed it to make a different melody with unintelligible lyrics.” On The Belbury Tales, all the samples are given more space. They’re foregrounded, present: they don’t sound like samples. And even if everything’s been given a new and strange electronic context, therefore, there’s an implied continuity with the live folk tradition.
Ironic, perhaps, to be arguing for a classic rockist metaphysics of presence in relation to Hauntology, but there you have it; that’s unquestionably how it feels. In contrast to Jupp’s previous work, everything on The Belbury Tales seems weightier. The weird and wonderful ghosts being evoked here do feel particularly substantial.
But Ghost Box has always been about the whole package, a synesthetic exercise in world-creation. And the “non-sonic variables,” to use Adam Harper’s terminology, are also crucial to the overall effect on The Belbury Tales. Take a closer look at the album art, for instance, lovingly crafted as always by labelmate House. Visually, what we’re being presented with is a depiction of Britain’s medieval past refracted through a filter of 1960s/1970s iconography. But presumably, this is also the “Chapel Perilous” we hear as a spectradelic psych jam about midway through the album? A neat intertextual parallel.
There are other examples. The most significant of which is Jupp’s encryption of two Canterburys into the record’s fabric. On the one hand, the Canterbury of Chaucer’s famous Tales: the inevitable echo in the album’s title, a track called “The Pilgrim’s Path,” the fact that the short story contributed by Rob Young in place of liner notes is named “The Journeyman’s Tale,” and, in a way, its content too. On the other hand, we have the prog rock of the so-called “Canterbury Sound” (Caravan, Soft Machine, etc.). As Jupp put it in an interview with FACT recently, “I’m a fan of a particular strain of English prog, and particularly all the stuff that grew out of the Canterbury scene. I love Caravan, certainly one of the poppiest and accessible of great British prog rock acts. Caravan manage to typify the intricate long form music of prog but with a joyful lightness of touch — which I think overlaps with the light music and soundtrack music that’s always influenced my work as Belbury Poly.” Two Canterburys then, one ancient and one now a fading memory, brought into alignment and made to converse in the present. It’s a perfect Hauntological gesture.
In a sense, The Belbury Tales offers nothing ‘new’ then. But I do feel like it offers it better, more completely than anything Jupp has produced before. If you’re already a fan, it will feel like a particularly satisfying record as a result. If you’re not, this may just be the one to convert you, to prise open the door to the Hauntological crypt.
A footnote to finish, a provocation, a can of worms that I’ll open but won’t fully explore. And it’s just as true of this record as any other Belbury Poly release. Right at the end of Electric Eden, Rob Young has this to say of a gig he attended at Shunt’s makeshift catacombs beneath London Bridge. He wrote of the event:
[It was] an experiment in consensual hallucination, and I felt the power of music to act as a portal between time zones. For anyone born between roughly 1965-75, these images have the quality of folk memories. Television and recorded music were our oral culture. The images and sounds that Ghost Box recombine have an effect at some primal level, and being exposed to them in these airtight conditions gave me an inkling of why. It’s because they make Britain look good, and interesting, and mysterious and adventuresome. They show the countryside just before the worst effects of suburbanization, agribusiness and gridlocked traffic took hold. But why is all this so emotionally affecting? It’s because it’s a country and an age that have now disappeared, but its aural and visual traces make us realize, too late, that we were once actually living there ourselves. The sense of less creates pangs at some instinctual level; the only way to cancel it is to project into the collective hallucination, the dream of Electric Eden.
I don’t doubt that that’s true. But I think it’s also worth pointing out that a record like the The Belbury Tales works whether or not you were born between 1965 and 1975. I, for one, was raised on He-Man, Transformers, and the Ninja Turtles rather than either the early Doctor Who or The Clangers. I came to the Radiophonic workshop and library music actually through Ghost Box rather than the other way around. And I grew up in a Britain that was always already suburbanized and gridlocked with traffic. This is an important point to get on the record, because I can’t be the only one. The fact that so much of the writing on Hauntology has come from critics a good 10 to 20 years my senior does feel like a problem.
The real genius of this record, and of Ghost Box’s output more generally, is that it works even if you don’t ‘get’ the references in anything like a conscious sense, even if they don’t make you feel ‘nostalgic’ per se. Because the reference points Ghost Box is playing with are hardwired deeper than that, part of a more complex network of cultural memorization. And I can’t help but think, therefore, that one of the reasons I love Ghost Box so much is precisely the fact that I don’t really ‘get it,’ that I never could, that I never can quite tell the difference between the old and the new, but that these strange, hallucinatory feelings arise unbidden anyway, the result of some mysterious collective nerve being touched.