A question. If George Martin was the fifth Beatle, does that make photographer Nikki Price – for the purposes of their latest album at least – the ninth member of Stuart Turner and the Flat Earth Society?
Nikki Price’s photograph, which adorns the cover of the band’s eponymous album, is as integral a part of the record as any of the instruments heard on the songs contained within: a carpet of purple flowers (Lavender? Bluebells?), amidst an array of leafless trees.
At its most obvious, the image is a reference to the record’s third song, ‘King of the Hill’ (referencing local landmark Horrid Hill), in which Stuart Turner asks:
If flowers fill the forest floor, do trees get noticed anymore?
And if a tree should fall to ground, would anybody hear a sound?
But, on a subtler level, it summarises the whole musical endeavour; the eyes and ears are immediately drawn to the beauty of the cover’s flowers and the songs’ musicianship and poetry. But, on closer inspection – upon a more careful listen – it’s the bareness of the trees, the decay within the lyrics, which comes to dominate proceedings.
Entropy is the watchword on Stuart Turner and the Flat Earth Society. To refer back to a Beatle: all things must pass. And they’re passing without anyone really noticing. ‘Byzantium’, itself named after a long fallen empire, hammers the message home most obviously:
The birds have flown the tower
The walls will fall around us
Haven’t you heard? This is our final hour.
Elsewhere ‘Ever Decreasing Circles’ explains how “I’m trying not to worry, but I’m running out of time” while ‘Sunday Song’ confides how “If I could I would stop the world/but I just don’t have the time”.
Time, it seems, is waiting for no band.
In ‘Every Passing Year I Retreat More Inside My Own Head’ (a telling statement of deterioration in its own right), there is the opening prayer of “My Lord, we’re ageing/my Lord, not quite dying”.
At its climax, the idea of dwindling endings and declining and falling comes to a head in ‘Unmissing’, the song of a corpse, lying yet to be discovered in a house.
Just the title of the song is evocative enough; that “un-” prefix being so loaded with meaning that whole text books could be devoted to picking it apart. “No one rings and no one calls,” Turner sings:
It’s like I never existed at all.
Won’t somebody come and find me here?
I’ve been gone too long…
It’s all gone too wrong.
While much of the degeneration is described in broad terms, moments like this very specific tale of a special kind of decline and literal decay add clarity to the theme.
In other songs, the unravelling is applied to that the classic rock and roll staple of relationships. In the throes of a dying relationship, the album opener asks “If I’m so bad then why the hell do you still want me around?” Then, in the post-relationship analysis of ‘The Boy Doth Protest Too Much’, there are bitter, self-pitying lines about how “you knew you could/I knew you would/leave me alone.” By the time we reach the short album closer, ‘Away from You’, the damage has been well and truly, irretrievably done: “I don’t care where you go as long as I’m not there.”
In other places, the idea of entropy is explored in other ways. ‘The Pendle Precedent’, describing the Cumbrian witch trials, shows how a whole community can allow itself to disintegrate through paranoia and vicious self-interest.
In two further parts of the album, it’s the English language itself that has been corrupted, thanks to the splendidly dextrous imagination of Hand of Stabs’ James Worse.
Through two superb offerings, one featuring musical accompaniment (‘A Flarch of Woundwillow’) and the other (‘Upon Glanderous Thrane’) speaking for itself, Worse unleashes a spectacular, spell binding torrent of words – most of them made up.
Phrases like “Grusping the quembervane” and “the twimsy modbollosc pustooned by gynormic windbone” are delivered in such a way that you kind of feel you know what’s being said, even though it is, in the most literal way, absolute nonsense.
When Stanley Unwin of Kenneth Williams’ Rambling Syd Rumpo recited tales in a similar language, they did it for laughs; here, though, Worse delves deeper and deeper, allowing the sound of words, rather than words themselves, to paint a picture of distortion and decline; of nature coming to retake what once was hers – or, at least, that’s this listener’s interpretation. You will have yours.
There are moments of light – or, at least, less dark, amidst the decaying gloom. In a Flat Earth Society answer to Pulp’s ‘Disco 2000’, ‘Glad I Knew You Then’ dwells upon an adolescent crush (“We were friends but I wanted more”) and how, upon reuniting, both the object and giver of unrequited affection now have very little in common (“I hear your voice, but don’t recognise you”). But despite the passing years, and the shedding of ties that once bound – yet another instance of decay – there remains a feeling of immense gratitude. Hence the song’s title and defining lyric.
And the music is lighter too.
The brightness of John Whittaker’s brass on the album’s first song makes for a distinct contrast with the abject misery finding its way out of Stuart Turner’s mouth.
And the jangly, indie sounds of ‘Unmissing’, ‘The Pendle Precedent’ and ‘Away from You’, matched with the jangly folk sounds of ‘The Boy Doth Protest Too Much’ and ‘Byzantium’, add to the colour of the album, alongside the inevitable blues influences.
But then that’s probably what you get for having Medway indie guitarist legend Bob Collins (ex-Dentist) and Medway folk multi-instrumentalist Rob Shepherd (ex-Singing Loin) – both on their second Flat Earth Society album – in your band.
What may appear, on paper, as clashes of miserable lyrics with upbeat melodies makes for fascinating unions of texture and substance. The lyrics bringing depth, the music bringing polish and shine.
Once upon a time, Stuart Turner, the Dorset Sixth Former had dreamed of being in a band ‘like The Stone Roses – but blues. I wasn’t really sure what that was or how that was going to work. But that’s what I wanted it to be because these were the things I liked.’ Here, on Stuart Turner and the Flat Earth Society’s fourth album – and Turner’s sixth – that dream looks like it’s being fulfilled.
Perhaps all the above explains why, in a recent tweet, the band posted how the ‘album was so easy to make but has taken so long to release. But we are all really proud of it.’ Stuart Turner and the Flat Earth Society by Stuart Turner and the Flat Earth Society represents a sense of completeness: both thematically and musically.
Only fitting then that, in choosing to simply name the album after themselves, this band’s fourth album makes for a defining statement about who they are and what they are about.
Find out more about the band and the album on their website.
The album launch takes place on Friday 15 April at the LV21. Find out more on the event’s Facebook page.
You can find out more about Stuart Turner and the Flat Earth Society’s back catalogue in my book, Do it Yourself: a History of Music in Medway, published by Cultured Llama.