Saturday, 15 July 2017

The Incredible String Band "Wee Tam and the Big Huge"

Finally, a group of musicians produce a double album that is a masterpiece and that completely merits and deserves its extended length. Chock full of inventive, creative songs that are both playful and deeply serious. Mystery, hidden meanings, obtuse images and references to mythology, historical figures, language, religion and spirituality along with a grounded pleasure in nature and the simple things in life.

There is less variation in the instruments used than on the Incredible String Band's previous albums but much more assurety and confidence in the compositions. The group's songwriters are now prepared to develop a composition at length and to trust that a singular focus will hold the listener's interest. They are also happy to see references in one song reoccur in another as instances of stylistic and thematic unity rather than as repetition.

To this end, there are certain key words and phrases that can be seen as encapsulating some of the album's meaning:

            "we are all still here, no-one has gone away"

            "stranger than that, we're alive"

            "music is so much less than what you are"

            "what is it that we are part of and what is it that we are"

            "even the birds when they sing it's not everything to them"

            "one light, light that is one though the lamps be many"    

            "come let us build the ship of the future"

Characters like Jesus, Hitler, Noah, Groucho Marx, Lazarus, Richard the Lion Heart and Queen Cleopatra come and go. References to boats and ships abound. The crucifixion and the resurrection are constant sources. The language goes from Elizabethan love poetry to the Hebrew alphabet to American blues phrases. The elements, trees and friends are mentioned severally. The lion and the unicorn, centaurs, Atlantis and Troy.

Bob Dylan said this about traditional music:

            "Traditional music is based on hexagrams. It comes about from legends, Bibles,    plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death...All these songs about roses growing out of people's brains and lovers who are really geese and swans that turn into angels"

I think that the Incredible String Band are the first pop musicians to take that exact approach of the original composers of traditional music and to use it to write songs in that exact tradition and that were strong and flexible enough to carry the weight of meanings they wanted to pin on them. "The Iron Stone", for instance, sounds like it was written in 1450 rather than 1968.

The group were metaphorically bursting with ideas and determined to include all of these ideas into song. "Douglas Traherne Harding" is one of the most extraordinary songs ever written. It begins "when I was born I had no head" and gets weirder from there. 50 years later the world has caught up with the Incredible String Band and it is the work of seconds to search for information about Douglas Harding and his philosophical ideas. How hard must it have been at the time to follow what was being done in this song and how many listeners must have assumed that it had no meaning when in fact it has a very specific, quite literal purpose. As a summation and illustration of abstract thought in a pop song it is without parallel.

The title "Wee Tam and the Big Huge" could be translated as "A Small Person Contemplates the Universe". The overriding theme of the album is pondering what is the individual's place in the chance and chaos of existence. This is a big philosophical concept to put forth and the group accomplish this without ever becoming ponderous or pseudy. For instance, "The Mountain of God" mashes up lines from hymns with Winnie the Pooh, bible extracts and the liturgy against a church organ background that suggests piety and devotion while pointing out that these words are just words and can be randomly uttered without a deeper understanding of the underlying concepts. They follow this piece with a song about a caterpillar. 

Similarly, "The Son of Noah's Brother" illustrates the danger of over examining points of subtlety. Is the song about Noah's brother's son or is it about Noah's son's brother? The lyrics of the song do not address this point and from the title alone there is no way of knowing. The meaning of this song is forever unknowable and deliberately created to be so.

The last lyrics of the album are

            "scattered we were when the long night was breaking
            but in the bright morning converse again"

Humanity divides and separates when tested, the ride is not always smooth. Yet more unites than divides and people will come together again when night is o'er. The album's opening lines echo this sentiment

            "we're all still here, no-one has gone away"

Humanity's oneness is stressed. What is that we are part of? We are part of humanity. The album has a quest but also a return to its starting point, a circularity. In my beginning is my end, the snake eats its tail (there is also a song about a snake on the album).

In between there are also straight forward love songs and songs that celebrate fellowship and the simplest pleasure of breathing. The breadth of the writers' talent and creativity and the depth of their ambition results in a multi-faceted portrayal of life and an acknowledgment and celebration of that fact of life. Much is unknowable and the greatest mystery of all is that we exist. And yet it is all so gloriously optimistic and celebratory.

            "stranger than that, we're alive"

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