Album review: Stuart Turner and the Flat Earth Society – Scowl

Stuart Turner and the Flat Earth Society - Scowl

Once upon a time (2012 to be precise) Stuart Turner and the Flat Earth Society recorded a song called ‘Unwanted’. Its opening couplet ran as follows: “Tell me will there be good news soon/’cos I am so tired of this bad mood”.

Five years later and Stuart Turner and his not-so merry band of Flat Earth Society members are still waiting for the mood to lift. It’s only appropriate then that the latest album is called Scowl.

It’s a belter of an album, thanks – in part at least – to the addition of two things: Rachel Lowrie’s rich, powerful vocals and Stuart Turner’s new guitar.

Rachel Lowrie talks about her music and working with Stuart Turner

In a recent video interview with Bob Collins (see below), the Flat Earth Society’s guitarist explained how, in the lead up to recording Scowl, Rob Shepherd left the band (although he still makes a welcome appearance on this record – and has a writing credit to boot):

And at the same time that happened, Stuart happened to buy this great, wonderful Gretch guitar that he’d been looking at for so long. And when you plug that in that’s a loud beast.

So with no mandolin or banjo [from Rob], Stuart with this guitar and me with mine up we suddenly become a very loud band. Which is great. It’s just a different version of Stuart Turner and the Flat Earth Society. And Rachel sounds phenomenal – just having the guest vocal: she does a couple of duets with Stuart.

The second part of my interview with Bob Collins including a chat about being in STFES

He is, of course, right. The mix of Stuart Turner and Rachel Lowrie’s voices is excellent – inspired even. And with the change in musical line up, there is a much heavier, rockier feel to this record compared with the band’s previous (excellent in a different way) self-titled outing.

Scowl is a record of its austere, post-truth times.

Over the course of the album there are diatribes against power, corruption and lies, courtesy of ‘When?’, ‘Stoic’ and ‘No’ and thumbnail sketches of vulnerable victims of circumstance: children in rush-hour car crashes (‘Crash’), a dying friend (‘Solitary’) and a woman driven to attempted murder by her manipulative husband (the Archers referencing ‘Helen’).

While resolute in its devotion to its theme of the heartless vs. the heartbroken, the long player fluctuates between anger at the status quo (“Strip all our assets to stock our defences/run up debts and charge them to expenses” as ‘When?’ puts it) and a clear headed desire to make the best of things.

In ‘Nothing’, with its nod to David Bowie’s ‘“Heroes”’, a friend who has fallen on hard times (“your breath smells of discount rum/it’s not even half past one”) is urged to “sort your life out”. Later another friend who has “hit the ground one too many times” is given the most tender of farewells (‘Solitary’).

Even in the single moment of serenity there is an ambiguity. In ‘Water’, we get a tranquil portrait of a woman paddling in the sea. But the image is darkened when the narrator’s scream “fail to attract her” and, having eventually acknowledged him, she “slowly turns her back”.

At the centre of the album, ‘Winterborn’ turns the canvas 90 degrees, producing a detailed landscape of a brutal chill bearing down on broken buildings. The gruelling hardship is made harsher still by the relentless chain gang chant delivery, the gritty blues riffs and John Whitaker’s ghostly trumpet.

Though Scowl’s other songs focus so much on characters and ideas, this aural picture of decline and disarray still retains an intense humanity that aches and groans. Rarely has the phrase “I feel like going home” sounded so desperately futile.

It is, quite possibly, the album’s finest, most beautiful moment.

Part Three of Stuart Turner’s Top Ten Medway Albums. Stay tuned for the end where he talks about the new album.

The album’s finale comes in the form of a duet between Rachel Lowrie and guest vocalist (and Claim frontman) Dave Read. For all its jaunty pace and hand claps, ‘Helen’ tells the darkest of dark tales: marital manipulation leading to attempted murder.

Using an Archers plotline as its inspiration, both Lowrie and Read sing from Helen’s point of view, using lines (almost) directly taken from the original scripts (“put a knife in my hand and tell me to die”).

It’s a rousing – if deeply disturbing – end to an album filled with doom and gloom. But there is hope – and that can often be said about STFES album closers.

As the song approaches its climax, Turner’s voice emerges, repeating the mantra: “We won’t let life get the better of us/each of us stuck in a soap opera kiss”.

It’s an apt couplet for the final moments of a record that has listed so many moments of human frailty and inhumane callousness.

Very apt indeed.

Scowl is released on Friday 10 November. Visit stfes.com to find out more and buy your copy.

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