“The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth.”
– “Ode on Intimations of Immortality,” by William Wordsworth
You can count the emotionally resonant moments on the first two These New Puritans albums on maybe half a hand. Straining towards a platonic ideal of RZA-cum-The Fall-cum-taiko drumming, TNP’s whole brag came down to austerity, severity, and discipline, as the band struck stony-faced poses over big beats and esoteric sorta-non sequiturs. No band from the whole new wave of NME-approved post-punk demanded to be taken more seriously, but none were as inscrutable and terse. That said, neither record, despite bright spots, delivered on the potential that seemed to underpin all the obtuse ambition that powered them; one could be impressed by TNP, but they were impossible to love. Until now, there was no real evidence that the band was actually human, let alone composed of humans who did human things, like walk in fields or listen to Herb Alpert. Then there’s Field of Reeds, which opens with an almost unbearably pregnant and poignant arrangement for piano, brass, and strings, with a lonely woman singing “This Guy’s in Love with You” in the middle distance like she’s hanging out washing on a lighthouse. It’s rich, arresting, and moving, and for all of its depth, it almost instantly renders TNP’s previous work completely irrelevant.
Field of Reeds is less an about-face as it is a complete inversion, a reassessment of what this band actually does. At its core, the record is still characteristically taut and elegant, but where there was once distance, there is now emotion, while repetition and terseness have been replaced by fluidity and movement. The record barely touches a drumkit for minutes at a time, embracing valleys of drones, acutely detailed string, and wind arrangements to form compositions that are less “songs” than symbolic narratives, arcing and flowing through linked movements and passages that each contribute to greater wholes. Fashioned like a classical suite (albeit one with staves allotted for hawks, broken glass, and “magnetic resonator pianos”), the easy touchstone is later period Talk Talk, but there’s nothing spiritual or calming here; this is all tremulous unease, and the best manifests itself in eliciting the sensation of a sickly, awful blooming, like the midsection of “V (Island Song).” Where assertion, power, dominance, and certainty once predominated, there’s searching, distance, and time.
What this search is for, exactly, is related to the gap between people, the places they inhabit, and one another. Reeds is immensely evocative of the English landscape near the band’s original home of Southend-on-Sea, imbuing it with loss, searching, yearning, and absence while conjuring a thick, marshy, grey, and sunless world of abandonment and silence. The spirit of the place hums languid and dim. The darkness of which Wordsworth spoke, of a splendor missing from the earth, is held up, turned, and reflected, piece by piece, note by note. This search for what is absent, for missing perfection, relates to the album on another level beyond the Anglo-Saxon; in Egyptian mythology, the “field of reeds” is Oaru, the heavenly paradise, dotted with islands filled with endless plains of reeds, where humans dwell with the gods and pharoahs. The fields of reeds were said to look just like the mortal world except more beautiful and was a realm where life and all of its pleasures continued, except without labor or danger. For those who pass the test of earthly virtue, reaching Oaru was still fraught with peril (apparently demons with knives guard the gates to Oaru). It’s this journey towards recapturing that Barnett seems to be tracing, but instead of reflecting mortal fear, it’s emotional fear that haunts the landscape, of losing touch with others and of the final vision of heaven one is swimming towards. The lyrical motifs of swimming, searching, and finding words from dreams map out a territory of aching for something out of reach, a search doomed to fail since, after all, once you posit a heaven that looks akin to the place you currently inhabit, the immediate world will lose a luster that can only be recaptured through a final transcendence.
Importantly, for such a heavy blend of concepts, very few of Barnett’s words are wasted. The abstract mystery of his previous lyric sheets remains somewhat, but instead of hawkish questions and abstract maxims rubbing against one another in an awkward patchwork, there’s the reiteration of important symbols (stars, islands, swimming, dreams, and words) in new, thick, and complex combinations. Images are arresting, like meteors falling as fireworks go off on the beach or islands simply floating away. Barnett’s vocal presence has always been distinctive — a low, thin mumble vaguely indifferent to tune — but here he inhabits his music more fully and his texts fittingly. His flat singing imbues a sense of fragile hesitancy, but where he can’t communicate the necessary poignancy, he subs in the Portuguese fado singer Elisa Rodrigues, a grey children’s choir, or the man with the lowest voice in Britain. He slinks around the bottom of the dirge-like “Spiral” at the end of vocal phrases like a viper through a nest, undercutting the alien drift of the orchestra’s drones; elsewhere, he intones with a fitting unease, giving pieces like even the relatively song-like “Fragment Two” (“Crushed glass by the train tracks/ There is something there”) the chill they require to truly shiver.
Where TNP were once out to shock and awe, the shock here is how awed they sound. None of the conclusions or cadences are easy, but the journeys are fascinating. On “The Light in Your Name,” Barnett punctuates the repetition of his nervily sung phrases with caustic pauses that bubble with thudders and crashing, before the phrase ascends inexorably to a richly dissonant minor refrain that’s filled with yearning and distance: “Like girls dancing/ All alighting.” Drums enter, and it floats into a smoky, knotty ether, even more grey and delicately coarse than what preceded. Near the close, Barnett sings “I could lead you back again,” but one doubts he remembers the way back, if the place even exists. It ends on the sound of broken glass. It’s a trip.
In each piece, Barnett signifies the solitude of humanity against natural forces; there’s a sense of supplication in searching. The title track delivers the most affecting iteration of this theme. The massed, throaty choirs that lend an immense, dreading weight to the piece are reminiscent of Popul Vuh’s work on the soundtrack for Herzog’s Aguirre. There, like here, the innate immutability of nature dwarfs the human figures on stage, and this is underlined by the smallness of Barnett’s tenor against the wall of voice, as he intimates a melody in baby-talk. When the choir recurs, superceding a frilly, ornate motif equal parts Reichian and baroque, it feels like time and space drowning out humanity. Likewise, his tiny, meek melismatics give way to a plaintive, throaty yawn. It’s gorgeous; it heaves like church and sings like a wave.
This isn’t to say that everything comes off. “Organ Eternal” feels relatively pasted together, cycling through electronic passages and string interludes without the same sense of intent or significance as elsewhere, and “Nothing Else” similarly meanders when it starts worrying about finding a shape. Yet Field of Reeds is the moment These New Puritans arrive as something more important than a tangle of neuroses iterating as a rock band — this is cohesive, full, and satisfying because of, not in spite of, its complications, absences, and general knottiness. This record demands attention, and once you’re through the door, it engages and encourages description, contemplation, thought; it wants worrying at. Yet, it never feels like a self-serious, overtly self-conscious piece of art, because nearly every moment feels inevitable, grown from the one that preceded it. Each sound is deliberate, significant, signifying. The overall effect will not arrive simply, but what arrives isn’t simple; it’s something to swim in. If the object of whatever art rock is in 2013 is to make the listener still long enough to wonder anew at what can be done, mission accomplished. Field of Reeds may initially come across as inhumanely taut, straining, and indistinct to begin with, but this is the sound of precociousness finally arriving at a purpose.