Despite across-the-board praise and rightful appearances at the top of end-of-year lists, These New Puritans’ 2010 album Hidden remained just that for most record-buyers presumably distracted by the deluge of far lesser musical accomplishments that year. What? Was everyone waiting for a new Radiohead album or something?
Well, that very thing came, underwhelmed and went in early 2011, leaving the distinct feeling that Radiohead had become bored with themselves. And while it would be pushing it to suggest that These New Puritans began writing Field Of Reeds that year in response, it isn’t pushing it to praise them for taking Yorke and co’s place and creating what’s arguably the musical achievement of the 2010s so far.
There are no simple entry points – it demands engagement, and to be taken as a whole. You may think, mid-way through second track Fragment Two, that they’re picking up from where Hidden left off, but then it’s like a trapdoor opens into a frankly indescribable audio vortex. Modal Miles Davis rubs up with late-period Scott Walker; the ghost of Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden skulks around in the background while banked, Gregorian chant-like vocals keep making appearances to create some heavy, heavy atmospherics.
Yet this is far from abstracted noise – it’s absolutely concrete: the minutest detail is accounted for, giving the album its own internal logic so that listening to Field Of Reeds becomes like entering some sort of dream state. It’s a feeling perhaps best expressed in a lyric from Fragment Two, capturing precision and ambiguity in the same image: “I swam towards your ship like a missile guided by vague feelings.” Elsewhere, frontman Jack Barnett sings of uncovering “something” “in crushed glass by the train line”; throughout, he’s constantly searching for a place where “the way to get there is going round in circles”, at one point asks for “a prayer that just for a moment real life and dreaming swap places”. By the time you’re caught up in Spiral and Organ Eternal, the latter’s descending sequencer motifs interrupted by unsettling otherworldly effects, you wonder how the hell you got there yourself.
The whole album is a voyage of discovery for both band and listener: the former pushing themselves out into uncharted waters, the latter happy to be led along on an astonishing feat of imagination, of composition and performance. Trying to describe the nine-minute V (Island Song) in words written on a page would be fruitless. But perhaps this helps: the press release swears “virtually every sound heard on the album is as it was played” but, really, it sounds like it could only have been captured as intangible thoughts turned directly into sound. (Even some of the instruments sound made-up: Professor Andrew McPherson’s Magnetic Resonator Piano, anyone?)
Crucially, though, this isn’t a bunch of smart-arses’ musical equivalent of, “Look, ma! No hands!” There’s depth here, too. If the song title The Light In Your Name doesn’t make your heart tremble a little, then Jack Barnett and jazz singer Elisa Rodrigues’ duet will, their vocals melting into and pulling away from each other like two apparitions weaving a love song.
Fail to fully engage with the album and you’ll have scant chance of comprehending it, but therein lies Field Of Reeds’ compelling beauty. Give yourself over to what’s not only a 21st-century masterpiece, but also something timeless that will resonate whenever you find it.