Finally, it’s here! the long-awaited, new, self-titled album from Stuart Turner and the Flat Earth Society, featuring the iron-lunged bellower and titular band-leader Mr Turner, as well as his backing band, which has evolved over the years into something of a Medway-based supergroup, featuring among others ex-Dentists guitarist Bob Collins and ex-Singing Loins Banjoneer and Mandolino (these may not be the correct terms) Rob Shepherd.
But first, some deep background. The Vikings held the rather melancholy view that the world was always in decline, from the high point of the distant past when the Romans built huge buildings and endless roads, forever downwards into chaos and ruination until the end of everything at ragnarock. Everything ends, so let us rage against the dying of the light. Valar Morghulis, So it goes, etc. etc.
This album has something of that feeling, standing proudly as a glaring anachronism in our current age. Why the hell would a twenty first century englishman feel the need to play a national guitar and sing like Blind Willie Johnson? Or surround himself with actual musicians? Doesn’t he realise people don’t go to gigs anymore? (STOP PRESS: While this review was being written reports came in of Stuart playing an un-amplified, un-miked solo acoustic set, and getting shut down for being too loud! A ridiculous occurrence. But if it was going to happen to anyone…), And yet, STFES seem to acknowledge that they and others like them are dinosaurs, they take their knocks with a wry smile, and carry on, writing it all into the song, “The birds have left the tower…There is no more future”, Turner growls on Byzantium, using one fallen empire as an analogue for another.
Our odd little hometown helps feed into these notions also, littered as it is with relics of our vanishing industrial and militaristic heritage. On my favourite track ‘King of the Hill‘, Turner sings of being “King of Horrid Hill, watching the past stink and rust”, Horrid Hill being a curious corner of Riverside Park in Rainham, covered on one hand in crumbling concrete, and on another in wild plants of varying levels of rapaciousness. New life growing on old, dead things, and that is the core theme I get from this album. Perhaps the world has been rough on artists recently, and these ones particularly, with them coming perilously close to downing tools by the sound of things, but instead adversity has galvanised STFES, injecting them with new fire and leading to this album, perhaps their best.
Until now, album-before-last On The Brink Of Misadventure perhaps housed STFES’s definitive statement, the Thatcher-busting single, Decimation. Many a time have I watched delighted, as Turner would lean out across a crowd, brass megaphone in hand, all mad eyes and teeth, exhorting the proles to “get themselves to the workhouse!”, as they responded in kind. It’s one of those perfect musical moments.
I don’t think the new album has an individual track to beat that, but it does something better, it hangs together as a complete piece of work, moving seamlessly through disparate styles and multiple levels of intensity, yet still feeling liked a unified whole thanks to thematic line running through it, one of those real juicy discs, that rewards more and more with each new listen. Tracks range from the ballbusting blues of ‘Grandson‘, through the trumpety indie of ‘Sunday Song‘ and ‘Things That Make Up A Life‘, to the gently lilting and quite wonderful folk of ‘Every Passing Year I Retreat More Inside My Own Head‘. The diverse collection of songs found here even includes two marvelous cameos from nonsense poet James Worse (He who famously got on channel 4 news at the time of the Rochester by-election, and said of Mark Reckless, “the man’s a flouty pelmvessel, he should be hoddered into solulence, literally.”), who gleefully and eloquently delivers his ‘Worsicles’ in the fine tradition set down by Lewis Carroll and Stanley Unwin. Such eccentricity further reinforcing the ‘englishness’ of the record, a curious flavour of the national character, at once vintage and modern, introspective and outgoing, and rather daft when called upon to be so. In this way, this album manages to be a soundtrack to both our wished for lazy sunny afternoons, and the stormy mondays of reality, as well as the vaguely pagan debauchery of the rapidly approaching Sweeps Festival. This year, I reckon STFES should stand astride that like a colossus.
In short, from all the chaos, difficulty, and buggering about of life, music and everything, STFES have somehow dug in their heels and pulled out a stellar collection of tunes, that’s rough in the right places, and smooth in the other right places, and probably their best album yet.