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s Martin Green says, Lau are a triangle, and a triangle is a powerful shape. What Lau achieve when they come together under the rule of three always seems to harness the best of that creative power, and their 2019 album, Midnight And Closedown (released on 8th February), is no exception. Recorded in just a week, but written during a year in which politics has more directly affected our daily thoughts than ever before. Produced by John Parish, the man in the chair for PJ Harvey’s Mercury Prize-winning Let England Shake, and This Is The Kit’s beautifully ramshackle Moonshine and Freeze, in a reversal of their usual methods, Lau wrote and recorded Midnight and Closedown before presenting it, in its entirety, to live audiences in November and December last year. The album takes its title from a line in Seamus Heaney’s Glanmore Sonnets and has been described variously as a Brexit album, more akin to late-period Beatles than folk, and even as a hint at a final fling. The first, I’m happy to accept; as for those other assertions, let’s see…
As the album opens there’s certainly a hint of melancholy in Kris Drever’s vocal for I Don’t Want to Die Here. It’s offset, though, by Aidan O’Rourke’s shimmering strings and a sense of locomotion in the rhythm. The lyrical content will undergo more scrutiny than can be offered here, but ‘Slick cobbled stones reflecting seventies festoons / our drunken county rallies round ideas like sad balloons’ certainly support Aidan’s description of the album’s themes… “The vehemence of opinion. The shoutiness. The rise of the right. The allure of brashness in politics…The sense that our collective future is hazy.”
A hint of nostalgia holds sway over that hazy future in the tentative guitar and archaic fiddle opening Echolalia. This predominantly instrumental track has room to stretch, though; the riff rises and falls among dusky chords, changes of pace and the grinding of Lau’s post-prog reverb. She Put on Her Headphones makes full use of that reverb too, but there’s a heartbeat and an optimistic melody behind the Kris’ soft vocal, and the astringency lurking in the lyric… “There’s two sides to this story, both of them are lies”. The heartbeat returns in Dark Secret, it could also be a partner to Echolalia, but dwelling on memories, rather than wallowing in nostalgia; a hypnotic and eerie scuttling to open that’s chased away by rich, warming guitar.
The idea of making a Brexit protest album didn’t pan out as the initial notion suggested – but it was the catalyst for Midnight and Closedown, which Kris Drever has described as being about islands “Big Islands and little Islands and human islands. The idea that we’re all islands. Especially Islands”. This is reflected in the band’s approach to writing, with each member bringing individually composed pieces to the table before they’re collectively explored, honed, re-developed and filtered through Martin Green’s ever-evolving electronics (still no album credit for Morag, though).
Since their 2007 debut, Lightweights and Gentlemen, Lau have progressively erased not only the boundaries of folk music, but of music in general. In doing so they’ve been declared Best Band at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards on four occasions, they’ve mesmerised audiences with exceptional live performances, collaborated on a wealth of fascinating projects and annually curate Lau-Land, a project dedicated to innovation and collaboration through performances and workshops. Each release has seen a progressively experimental approach to their music.
Midnight And Closedown continues the trend of change with an increase in lyrical content. There are major themes being discussed here – nationism, dissatisfaction, isolation, and Kris Drever is the man to put these concerns into words. Itshardtoseemtobeokwhenyourenot, though, seems to come from a more intimate source, with a harshness breaking through the developing dance beats in Aidan’s fiddle melodies, and layers of Martin Green’s best work enveloping the song, almost protectively. That lyrical affluence is matched by melody, though. Toy Tigers opens softly – generous echoes and gently picked guitar. Aidan’s fiddle takes on the unified persona of an orchestral string section, Martin contributes soul-stirring electronics and Kris’ ascending vocal emerges in glorious layers.
In a more traditional vein than we’re used to with Lau, Return to Portland emerges softly from shimmering seas, then layers of fiddle take the track off on a tangent, with the occasional gentle beat of a waltz to hold on to. As they tend to, things go very Lau as Aidan’s fiddle strives to tie everyone down to a melody; winning over in the end, as guitars and accordions find their own spaces. It could be said that Lau move further and further from their trad roots with each album, but those roots are still there for all to see; and especially in the album’s closing track, Riad, where accordion provides a backdrop for a slightly jazz-tinted guitar and a soaring/tumbling fiddle. Beautifully melodic and reminiscent of the trio’s unplugged sets around a single microphone.
With every release, Lau move further from music that can be explained and defined in reference to other music. The music defines itself, it has to because there is no frame of reference. To say Lau in 2019 are closer to The Beatles in 1967 than traditional music does not do this album justice. Lerwick is closer to Oslo than it is to London, but I doubt if we’re about to hear Kris Drever singing in Norwegian. As for a Lau swan song? With every album release, every tour, it’s said that Lau are at the height of their creative powers, but they always find more to offer. Always.
This music has been honed and refined with intimate care and attention to detail. This is music in evolution – tempo and dynamics are in constant motion, in a state of flux that’s paused and re-started like a tape machine. Melody, poetry, emotion and memory weave in and out like stories. Midnight And Closedown is the next chapter in Lau’s fascinating story. As ever from Lau, it’s a unique and exceptional album.