Atlantis (ii)

Atlantis from ‘A Coat Worth Wearing’ by Neil McSweeney

This is one of the more difficult lyrics on the record to add to with a post of this kind. As suggested previously in Atlantis (I), part of the song came out of a dramatic memory of childhood. As the lyric emerged I had hopes that it could evoke a timescale longer than a single human life. The title was the last thing to come to me and I liked it precisely because it seemed to strengthen this possibility.

The melody and the lyric emerged alongside one another – the chorus melody arrived with the words falling into place at once and the verses requiring a bit more tweaking and expanding. It didn’t take long to write though, really. It did, however, take a bit of time for me to settle on such a sparse arrangement underneath the melody. I think it began with a strummed guitar part that featured a few chord changes through the verses. I then pared this back to a picking pattern which had enough movement to mean I could hold one chord through the verse and save the changes for the chorus.

When it came time to work out approaches for the record, Andy and I met up with Lucy Farrell, Matt Boulter and Tom Lenthall down at The Bowerhouse in Maidstone to throw some ideas around. For Atlantis, Tom set up on the Rhodes, Matt on electric guitar and Lucy started working out a backing vocal. I carried on playing my acoustic part – I’d gigged this one more than any of the other songs we were looking at and was pretty attached to what I’d worked out. However, the picking pattern had the effect of fixing both the tempo and the phrasing of the melody so that when we layered up other instruments the song lost its fragility.

I think it was Andy who first had the idea of losing my part, initially just to reset our approach. It had two immediate effects. First, it transformed the way I sang the song. Some of the phrases wanted to be sung more briskly, others with a drawn out emphasis, and the spaces between the lines were free to just hang for an extra second or two. This led to the other effect, which was that none of the others knew where the hell they were. The Rhodes and electric were completely out of sync with each other and Lucy’s vocal was sliding around behind mine, sometimes early, sometimes late.

If we had captured that chaotic first pass I’d have stuck it on the record. Instead we have the closest approximation we could manage. The studio sessions were a few months later and by then Tom and Matt knew the changes a little too well.

Atlantis

the sky did blue my infant eye
dew did fill my veins from dry
weaned upon the warm, damp earth and
chaperoned by crawling lice

i never shall return
i lost the chart and bearing
since i sailed, my heart has failed
to find a coat worth wearing

i mapped you out, such a room you were
how deep and soft the carpet pile
how high and grand the ceiling curve
with lightening flash and birds a-flying

i never shall return
i lost the chart and bearing
since i sailed, my heart has failed
to find a coat worth wearing

how dark your furniture of trees!
what castles they concealed
with peasantry of lazy bees
and nobles all to battlefield –

from whence returned to be interred
within a broken bottle and
daisies laid upon their graves
to mark the bold adventure

i never shall return
i lost the chart and bearing
since i sailed my heart has failed
to find a coat worth wearing…

The image I’ve chosen for this song is from an exhibition I travelled down to see at the Royal Academy last year, ‘Painting the Modern Garden’. There were many powerful and brilliant paintings on display and by the time I reached Monet’s symphonic Agapanthus I’d become deeply moved by the whole thing. A response I was somewhat surprised by, if I’m honest.

The visual arts are an(other) area of uncertainty for me. When I lived in Tuscany, I visited many galleries and tended to respond more to renaissance sculpture than painting, on the whole. I used also to like the humanity and skill of representational portraiture when I was younger and so people like Rembrandt appealed – they still do. However, during the writing of this album I developed a fascination with the abstract use of colour and also smell.

I bought oil paints, linseed and turpentine and messed about to get a sense of the textures, the depth of tone and the thick scent of it all. I invested in essential oils and researched various formulae for balms and attars. I read up on the history of perfumery and alchemy. I experimented with combinations of colour fields, lighting gels and fragrances. I still have boxes containing rows of little bottles – Opoponax, labdanum and vetiver. Orange blossom, sandalwood, rose.

It was all quite a distraction for a while there. Anyway, it has left me with an enduring appreciation for gardens and particularly for colourful and heavily scented flowers. The rich sensuality that permeates childhood can, to some extent, be regained it seems. Albeit with a deep and complicated patina.

awwhs5vuhbaollze4uebWassily Kandinsky ‘Murnau – The Garden II’ (1910)

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