Three years in art-pop-new-wave-post-punk-proto-pronto-rockers (we could go on) Durutti Column gave John Metcalfe the opportunity to found Factory Classical with Tony Wilson, and more importantly, the confidence to go ahead and do his own thing.
“His own thing” has taken many guises, from producing and arranging the likes of U2, Coldplay, Peter Gabriel and Blur to his own combinations of electronica and modern classical composition. The crossover has certainly delighted the likes of Clash and BBC 6Music and there’s every reason to assume his forthcoming long-player, Absence, will follow the same path, having assembled an incredible line-up of musicians from the worlds of post-classical, electronica and pop: the crisp, jazz-influenced beats from Daisy Palmer (Paloma Faith, Rae Morris) deeply felt groove and lyricism from Red Snapper’s bassist Ali Friend and the exquisite voice of Rosie Doonan (Peter Gabriel, Birdy).
As a solo artist, Metcalfe explores electro-classical soundscapes and the boundaries between genres. His finely tuned compositions are neat yet grand in scale, both in terms of sound and the conceptual ideas underpinning them. Absence, the fifth record to bear his own name, is something of a departure for Metcalfe, framing bold images and themes with some of the most conventional song structures he’s ever employed. But it’s also his most affecting, deconstructing a subject he’s been interested in since his childhood in New Zealand.
“There’s always been tracks influenced by the death of my father,” he says, although Absence was born in the aftermath of a very different tragedy; a friend’s sudden, unexpected suicide. Some months later, Metcalfe sat down to process his thoughts. “I wasn’t thinking of it to be cathartic,” he says of ‘Flood, Tide’. “I just wrote some words, and that was the start of it.” Over delicate, spectral piano, Metcalfe’s voice sounds disconsolate, shot through with sadness. “He lay free, gone”, he sings. “This time let go / Keep him inside”. The pain is palpable.
Written around the time of his last record, 2015’s The Appearance Of Colour, it found its way into his setlists and inspired a new suite of songs exploring not death itself, but the absence left by loved ones and how we remember them. The record is chronological, exploring the relationship between two lovers, one of whom is dying. “It’s about the conversations they have,” he explains. “The imagined conversations you’ll have when someone is in the final, physical stages of death, the electricity leaving our body, and the final thoughts of both the person about to die and the person who has to carry on with life.”
But Metcalfe’s triumph is to steer Absence away from the mawkish and trite, writing instead from a warm, loving perspective. “We have / so much / my love”, sings Rosie Doonan on elegiac opener ‘She Feels’, a gentle hymn about reminiscence and a life shared. It sets the tone beautifully, Metcalfe’s viola a soft hum underneath Doonan’s ghostly voice. And it’s the latter that’s often the stand out element, conveying a regal grace, poise, and hope.
“It’s less to do with me and more to do with Rosie,” says Metcalfe of the decision to continue with a full band set up on Absence. “I just love her voice.” The trio – Doonan, Ali Friend on bass, and Daisy Palmer on drums – have grounded his compositions and give a rich texture; witness Palmer propelling ‘Feel The Land’ to a crescendo, or adding to the jittery bustle of ‘Above The Waves Of Crystal Waters’. There’s also a precision to these songs, and their relative simplicity in comparison to his more experimental music gives each instrument space to breathe.
Even his own voice is elevated, floating alongside Doonan’s and occasionally forging ahead on its own. “I’m not a singer, I’m not trained,” he says. “But it has something; the sentiment or emotion I’m trying to describe.” Ditto his lyrics, which rely on neat couplets and clever rhymes, the exact meaning less important than the way they’re delivered. “Lyrics are so prescriptive, and I’m not a poet,” he explains. “I’ve tried to leave things open for the listener, to own it more themselves.”
And so one is left to catch the details and piece together the puzzle; returning to an empty house with trepidation in ‘Boats And Crosses’, finding acceptance in death in ‘When They Weep’, and memories of love giving the strength to carry on with life in ‘See Me Through’. Through it all, Metcalfe focuses on tenderness and love’s healing power, how “The sky sings of our union” (‘Above The Waves Of Crystal Waters’). Nature looms large too; rain, oceans, and sunlight hinting at the natural cycles that govern our lives, and how powerless we are to resist them.
All of these elements come together to devastating effect in ‘Solitude’, one of the most emotional, heartfelt tracks Metcalfe has ever written and the heart of Absence. “Those eyes, those smiles / Suddenly I / Solitude”, Doonan gently laments as plaintive piano and haunting viola perfectly capture the crushing feeling of being alone. But even as the protagonist bleeds and weeps, hope is offered as a salve; “I dream / Open the door”. Metcalfe’s gift is to gently remind us that while nothing ever lasts forever,
we owe it to our dearly departed to forge ahead with the life we have left, and to live it in their honour.
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