This is going to sound really pretentious, but bear with me.
In any art there is a conflict between aesthetics and meaning, the surface and the unseen, etc. The best art balances these conflicting elements to make something both aesthetically enjoyable as well as “deep.” I’m thinking about Midnight Cowboy, Slumdog Millionaire, Ulysses, the works of Van Gogh, and the like. There are other pockets of art that are all surface, and these tend to be extremely popular as they are easier to understand (in the case of music, lyrically easy understand): Eminem, Kylie Minogue, action movies, romantic comedies, and so on.
This is making it hard for me to review British Sea Power’s Man of Aran.
Man of Aran presents a pretty fundamental issue, actually, as art must be appreciated through the senses (in this case sonically): can you make a “no surface” work of art? Pollack and Rothko tried for that idea by removing their own opinions of aesthetics from their work, but still, one must look at the surface to divine anything.
British Sea Power have made an almost completely instrumental album, an album almost classical in its compositions and ideas, though still largely within a standard “rock music” medium. Much of the album is bass, guitar, and drum kit, with a fair few strings thrown in, but the epic scope of the music gives it a feeling that BSP would probably like me to call “weighty.” The trouble is, of course, that “no surface” is essentially the same as, “all surface,” in that there’s really only one way for the music to be appreciated, only one level, and that substantially cheapens what is, at times, some beautiful music. There are some wonderful compositions here, but it feels incredibly forced. It feels like they thought: we should make an extremely literary and deep piece of work for the ages. In a sense, Man of Aran is a lot like Ryan Adams’ Cold Roses, an album so desperate to be something that it misses out on really being anything. There are a lot of very long crescendos and decrescendos, long runs with one instrumental riff and an exploring of (to use a classical music term) “themes.” This certainly works on occasion; the themes explored in “The North Sound,” build upon each other extremely well, climax nicely about four minutes in, then deconstruct themselves (slightly) and bow out gracefully.
“Spearing the Sunfish,” is a haunting, in many ways masterful work, but, because it appears in the midst of this experiment, it is extremely hard to appreciate. The rest of the album is similarly haunting, and it definitely picks up and becomes something akin to enjoyable at about the halfway point, the trouble there being that the first third is so “sleepy atmospheric” that there’s a decent chance it could actually put you to sleep (“Woman of Aran” in the second half has that effect too). “It Comes Back Again,” is truth in advertising, and has a very nice, environmental slow burn into newer, more interesting themes. However, the build-up is almost seven minutes long, and you might find yourself wondering (not without cause) what, exactly, they were thinking when they made this.
All that being said, this album is still interesting to listen to – if you’re into that sort of thing – and it’s very well arranged, performed, and produced. But if you, like me, remember the feeling of hearing The Decline of British Sea Power for the first time, that jangly, post-punk, rollicking, literary, rock-y goodness, you’re going to wonder what the heck happened to them. Man of Aran is a grower to be sure, an album you’ll probably come back to now and then for the often beautiful atmospheres it evokes, but it’s not really fun, and it’s not really to be enjoyed in company. I would say it’s to be enjoyed with a glass of Scotch, an easy chair, and a good book, but that sounds overly cliché and would, again, likely put the listener to sleep.
Ever since The Decline, British Sea Power have wanted to go in different directions, and they have certainly succeeded, but in the end this reviewer is forced to wonder whether it was all worth it. For a band that can work within the confines of rock so well and yet be different, as they did on The Decline and Open Season, it seems a strange career choice. But you can’t say they’re not trying, and these days, that means a lot.