I think that it’s fair to say that, without The Besnard Lakes, this website would not exist. It was 2010 and I was getting to that stage of life when I was beginning to fall back on music from a former time, preferring the ease and safety of nostalgia over the challenge of the new. This was something that many of my peers had already done, Britpop somehow ossifying many of their musical tastes. However, with my wife and very young family unusually out of town, I decided to look through the gig listings for that week and alighted on what looked like an interesting double header of Sleepy Sun and The Besnard Lakes at the tremendous Brudenell Social Club in Leeds (here’s the original listing).
I had heard of neither band before but a quick listen of their music piqued my interest, and I decided to take the plunge… what followed was, for me, something of a revelation as the music of both bands just washed over me and filled those dehydrated musical pores… I was back and ready to explore new music again, and never really looked back. By the time I saw the bands again, both playing the 2014 Liverpool Psych Fest (The Besnard Lakes on Day 1, and Sleepy Sun on Day 2), fittingly the best couple of days I’ve had with live music, that sort of sealed the deal.
I will admit that I had sort of lost touch with The Besnard Lakes in the meantime and, while playing their first three albums regularly the next two did not really register with me. However, the release of their sixth long player seems to have caused something of a stir and so I decided to give it a listen… and from the off I was absolutely wowed by it.
It’s interesting that a number of the reviews of this double album have stressed that this is not a set for the casual listener, that it requires some buy-in to really appreciate it. This for me is the minimum that you should afford an album to really get it… and it is certainly the case that an investment into these four sides of wax – each side of which has its own title: Near Death, Death, After Death and Life – is essential to really begin to understand what it is about.
This, then, is an record with big themes, and with it comes an overall feeling of music that is grand and panoramic… this feels like an album of vision: a grand narrative vision, and a psychedelic vision. This is case from the outset with ‘Blackstrap’ as the band play through an ominously sounding overture before the plaintiff cry of (half-of husband/ wife songwriting duo of Jace Lasek and Olga Goreas) Lasek, hits you and gives you the first taste of the pain and mystery of him facing the death of his father… a life event which informs the whole of the this sprawling suite of songs, designed to be listened to in one sitting.
After the intensity of ‘Blackstrap’ there’s a real lightness to ‘Raindrops’, with a melody that is as stunning and it is silky. This beautiful track really reminds me of that first night I saw them back in 2010. It gives me the same feeling of deep joy and discovery… it is one of those tracks that feels simultaneously like it has always existed, and yet is so fresh. It feels to me like a song of hope within the darkness… There are also references to the death of Mark Hollis, a musician who I myself very much mourn (and wrote about here) here and it is, I will say it again, simply stunning.
The third, and final track, on the ‘Near Death’ side of the vinyl version is ‘Christmas Can Wait’, a deeply affecting meditation on absence and death which, when you focus on the lyrics, is a very moving paean to Lasek’s father… and gave me cause to also think about my own father who died ten years ago… For me this is such a powerful and heartfelt moment in the album, where you really feel the music holding those both playing and listening.
After this comes ‘Death’, and the first track ‘Our Heads Our Hearts on Fire Again’; and while this may be a song about death… it ultimately feels like one of hope. The chorus here is so stoic, so joyous, that your cannot help but to feel defiant and emboldened… to feel the strength gained from the experience of tragedy… again this is intense and yet just so beautiful to listen to… the sort of beauty that can only be hewn from the rock of experience.
’Feuds With Guns’ is a trippy song which, with ‘The Dark Side of Paradise’, provides us with a much more meditative atmosphere through which to think about the ultimate nature of life and death, and consider our place within the great cycle of existence… a thought that might feel somewhat grandiose for many records… but here is just feels right as the music of the latter track sweeps to a fading drone for the last few minutes of the side…
That is a good place to pause, if you’re listening on vinyl you have to change the record anyway… but it’s also good to let those first six numbers sink in for a moment before embarking on the second half of the ‘suite’, which comprises of just three tracks, kicking off with ‘New Revolution’… a song of such joyous hope and optimism. You can feel the drive here… the feeling of having steered through the darkness and emerging on the other side to a new dawn.
After that the band play tribute to Prince. Using his original name of Jamie Starr, this is a fitting eulogy to a major musical influence, and, with the mantra of ‘with love there is no death’ another defiant and uplifting moment in which The Besnard Lakes find just the right balance between remembrance and belief… a companion to the Dead Skeletons mantra of “(s)he who fears death cannot enjoy life” on ‘Dead Mantra’.
Which then brings us to the title track, an eighteen minute long opus that takes up the whole of the ‘Life’ side of the album. The lyrics seem somewhat bittersweet to me, combining a certain world-weariness with self-consolation… a sense of aloneness (as opposed to loneliness)… but also a sense of realism to leave us with… and as the vocal finishes the music does too, abruptly. We are left with a slow and atmospheric drone which gradually pervades your consciousness as you sit with it and think about what you’ve heard. It is a wonderful way to finish the album, giving you a rare chance to just be.
This then, and I’m going to say it again, is an absolutely stunning album by The Besnard Lakes… a career high in my humble opinion, and one in which you can absolutely lose yourself. However this is not some directionless loss but one that is both focussed and accessible for those who want to contemplate the profound themes being considered here. It is an album that I am sure I will be playing frequently, and will become part of the cannon of albums that mean an awful lot to me.
’The Besnard Lakes Are The Last Of The Great Thunderstorm Warnings’ is released now on Full Time Hobby Records.
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