It’s no secret that I love Field Music, through their fits and starts and hiatuses and occasional missteps (2012’s Plumb being a bit morose, in this author’s opinion, though it won the Brewis brothers an overdue Mercury Prize nomination). The four-song stint stretching from “Effortlessly” through to “All You’d Ever Need To Say” on Field Music (Measure) is one of the great art rock suites of our age—though on vinyl it is inexplicably torn between two sides—and I told the band as much when I met them in Canonbury’s Myddleton Arms, over several G&Ts, back in March.
Since then I’ve had time to mull over the band’s latest LP, Commontime, released in February. My opinions on it have vacillated from “This is Tusk-like in its breadth, bait-and-switch, and execution” to “I don’t really understand what they’re shooting for”. Field Music are a band totally in love with the album format, but Commontime is home to some of their best standalone songs, and they don’t always neatly gel with each other. The lead single, “Disappointed”, is a concise kitchen-sink drama that channels Scott Walker and The Beach Boys. It is followed by the rinky-dink “But Not For You”—a curious act of sequencing.
And then there is the Prince connection. His fingers have clasped those of the Brewis brothers ever since they recorded “Let’s Write A Book”, a rubbery number on …(Measure). All of the band exhibit Nick Clegg-like tendencies when it comes to his music. And then, in the run-up to Commontime‘s release, the Purple One plugged the album twice (twice!) on Twitter. But does anything on the album sound like, say, “Kiss”, from their favourite album by the late great? No.
Perhaps we should look to two other idols of theirs: Hall & Oates. For this is an album more in thrall to that pair’s “triptych of new wave soul“, three releases that harbour some of my most treasured songs, than it is to Parade or Purple Rain. Starting with Voices in 1980, the blue-eyed Philly soul merchants released a trio of albums that beguiled as much as they topped charts. Nestled between the perfect pop songs like “Kiss On My List” and “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” are weirder experiments that collectively give rise to works of complex sophistication. (I contrast this with ‘simple sophistication’, where one or two aesthetics are mined to great effect—see the “dumb body music” of Sound of Silver, I suppose.) Some, like “Tell Me What You Want” sound unvarnished and off-the-cuff; others, like “Some Men” are overblown and therefore off-kilter.
Commontime jumps around in a similar fashion, and is home to several songs nigglingly reminiscent of Hall & Oates more signatory sound. “It’s A Good Thing” is one of the album’s focal points, its nagging, loping arrangement contrasting neatly with the central message of surrender: “It’s a good thing / To give yourself away” goes the title phrase. Just before the finale, “Same Name” is surprisingly caustic in its lyrical tone, not a million miles away from Pulp’s “Common People”, and in its jagged octave-jumps has something in common with Hall & Oates’ “Your Imagination”.
One of the great underreported motifs of this great underreported band is that of the reflection. Mirror images abound: two brothers, almost alike; an album that opens with a song called “In The Mirror”; artwork and videography that feature skew-whiff reflections. So many of their songs reflect a faintly surrealist vision of small-town living: a reflection, smeared. At Commontime‘s midpoint comes a state-of-the-nation commentary, “Trouble At The Lights”, which quietly scribbles about looking through the windows (OK, not quite a reflection) of stationary Range Rovers, and judging the owners within. It’s the Brexit paradigm: income inequality; a metropolitan elite far removed from Wearside; tax avoiders getting away without recrimination. Three minutes in, the song explodes, fuming, like the exhaust pipes of aforesaid 4×4. Caustic electric guitar sears through like a savage iron, and the bass gurns disapprovingly. It’s the perfect indicative moment of the way this fine band has come to document the tension between the ancient—quiet understatement—and the modern—populist fury that Britain today has in abundance.
For the sake of their art, perhaps we should keep our country in a state of chaos.