“Dreams pour into your [kingdom/condom]”
Initiation is a recurring and often very literal theme in David Tibet’s work, so that’s the point we’ll start from. For the uninitiated, you can go a long way to explaining the work of Current 93 through the above mondegreen that comes along just two lines into I Am the Last of the Field That Fell. I don’t know (and refuse to choose) which word it is that Tibet is incanting, but both would make an equal amount of sense. For three decades now, Current 93 has been a project obsessed with such images and dichotomies rubbing against each other beneath the same leather snood — the sacred and profane, mutilations old and new, “doing speed/and drinking mead” — as well as the horrifying ways in which they can twine together (“Hitler as Kalki,” anyone?). Jokes (like the one my brother made) about putting on Thunder Lightning Mind for S+M night at the ol’ cathedral are easy to reach for, but Tibet and his rotating cast (Steven Stapleton, Michael Cashmore, et al.) have summoned forth some of the most esoteric and powerful Musicks to come out of a post-Throbbing Gristle world.
The main things that change from record to record are the ways in which these themes are invoked and brought to life, and by whom. A poet as obsessed as Tibet is with visions both occult and cult — secret knowledge and unseen facts — won’t readily show his hand, and as such, Current 93 albums go one of two ways: the records that kindle something completely new in the listener, and the ones that will flap right past anyone who doesn’t already live in the same world the album does. This one falls decidedly between the two.
Much of I Am the Last’s charm comes from the predominance of Reinhold van Houdt’s piano, which appears almost interrupted from start to finish and sets the record apart from much of Tibet’s previous work. He weaves a delicate and responsive net for Tibet to meditate over, whether in the rich pastoralism of “Why Did the Fox Bark?” or the anxious arpeggios of “With the Dromedaries.” Jack Barnett from These New Puritans has graduated into the cult of Tibet collaborators, and some of the record bears a suggestion of reciprocal waves of influence between Barnett and Tibet; “The Invisible Church” wears the sensitive grace of last year’s still-fantastic Field of Reeds, a record that shared much in sensibility with Tibet’s decades-long journey to the psychic fringes of English folk music. It’s also maybe one of the best things in the C93 catalogue, Tibet’s uncoiling performance nurdled forth by Satie-like chord shapes. It trudges relentlessly forward; if ever the adjective “funereal” were ever to be something invigorating, it would be here.
Tibet is not as commanding here as he has been. His voice still carries a bewitching quality, like the shadow thrown by a rundown hermitage on a dead rosebush, but his delivery leans toward the monochromatic, especially next to the broad array of voices he’s wheeled out on recent records like Black Ships in the Sky. Here, he’s consistently speaking in a reedy strain, flowing out a torrent of words in an almost uninterrupted meter, singing meekly like the madman muttering to himself as he wanders down the Thames rather than the one snaking a path through the undergrowth to your window. Still, no one else can wail that someone has “snuck into the GINGERBREAD HOUSE” and demand as much solemnity as Tibet, and his gift for images that border the bizarre and the brain-gutting is undiminished, and ever the more haunting for spanning the two; “The sex of stars/ In the frame of the lashed face” indeed. His preoccupations are primarily nocturnal (as indicated by the stellar album art, some of the best in a very vivid visual catalogue), ranging from the “sex of the stars” to Shirley Temple and the ghost of Gary Glitter. It’s hard to go 10 seconds without an arresting image, something that makes the floor drop out and the air suddenly very viscous.
However, the material backing him is uneven and tends to veer toward the empty, bringing a pretty flat sense of drift to the proceedings; “Kings and Things” and “The Heart Full of Eyes” are guilty of feeling underresponsive to Tibet’s sheets. When he hands over the mic, the results are mixed. Now-regular C93 collaborator Antony (“and the Johnsons”) Hegarty delivers “Mourned Winter Then” with his usual expressiveness, but when the rest of the arrangements fails to show up, it scans as thin. Yet, while hearing Nick Cave caviare out piano-borne musings about “The cost of blood/ As mist” in the closing “I Could Not Shift the Shadow” might feel a little retrograde after Push The Sky Away, he handles Tibet’s sheet with exactly the gravity it requires, and when a distant saxophone answers his plea to “Bury your naked church/ Into my mouth,” the song assembles itself as an Event as emphatic as the opener.
At a time when Michael Gira — one of Tibet’s closest still-active contemporaries, in terms of fearless weirdness — has been making records that seem determined to serve as a culmination of the last 30 years, Current 93 remains as esoteric and hard to pin down as ever, each album reverberations of the same mind painted with a different palette. While I Am the Last broadens the possibility of how restrained, elegiac, and unconfrontational a Current 93 album can be, it doesn’t broaden Current 93. Nor should it; Tibet has been leading an invisible church within and apart from those around him for this long, precisely because his vision is so distinct. Each record is made for the true believers, but this new one should at least bring a few more into the fold.