Artist: British Sea Power
Album: The Decline of British Sea Power & the Decline Era B-Sides
Record Label: Golden Chariot
Release Date: 19th June 2015 (originally 8th September 2003)
Following the re-release of their favoured debut album, I wax lyrical about my personal and musical experience of British Sea Power and what the album that began their resolutely underground favouritism means to me
Yorkshire-via-Brighton sextet British Sea Power released their debut album The Decline Of British Sea Power in 2003, but that certainly wasn't my first experience of them. That came on the day of my 16th birthday in 2010, on the fateful night before a GCSE Religious Education exam I'd barely scratched my arse towards. The band were playing at the Komedia in Bath. I'd only been to two gigs before that in my life; toss-worthily boring indie rockers Embrace at Westonbirt Arbouretum as part of a primary school trip, and the Taste of Chaos tour in 2009, fueled by teen angst and a deep passion for guitar solos. The ticket was given to me by a friend, who on the same night introduced me to a future (now ex) girlfriend. The band's last studio release had been 2008's Do You Like Rock Music?, and come the end of the penetratingly loud yet measured gig, my friend turned to me and said "that was certainly rock music".
I start this re-visitation and review of sorts of the band's recently reissued debut record (accompanied by a set of B-sides) because this is a band that mean a great deal to me. As is often cited, The Decline Of... has always largely been accepted as the band's best record, and as is perhaps more frequently asserted it's nigh-on unfathomable as to why they never got the break they deserved. The closest they came was in 2008, but their appeal has never seemed to garner the household name status many believe they deserve. There are, I think, a few reasons for this.
As odd and characterisitic as they were always prone to being, there can be no denying of the anthemic quality of almost of the tracks on the original release of The Decline Of... . Later singles like 'Waving Flags' and 'No Lucifer' would go on to be the songs that were instantly recognisable as BSP tracks, but the likes of the bonafide raucous fist-pumper 'Remember Me' and the equally as life-affirming 'Carrion' set the precedent much earlier on. The thing to consider in this context is that in 2003, the undivided attention of the music press was focused on The Libertines and The Strokes (surely both the aforementioned tracks are more rabble rousing than the likes of 'Time For Heroes'?). Whereas those bands positively pandered to the press and their excess was glorified, BSP's resolutely un-pretentious attitude towards the music and partying (even if it was slightly inward facing) meant that their lack of interest in getting on the front cover of NME saw much of their music fly over people heads. It's a point that has been made before, but the frustratingly conservative nature of the mainstream press is largely to blame for the loss of a hundred great rock records from that era, and by default this finds the root cause of the tiresome "is rock 'n' roll dead?" conversation.
In the context of this re-release, the initial tracks on the original album sound (just as before) like a transmission from a secret and specific time and place, though not in an out-dated way. The singular, literary and odd-ball lyricism works almost like a narrative, the conclusion to which may never be immediately obvious but is electrifying all the same. The opening salvo of 'Apologies To Insect Life' and 'Favours in the Beetroot Fields' are short, violent but delectable Pixies-esque sucker punches to the gut, proper art-rock vitriol steamed into a few moments of youthful abandon. In its more measured climbs, like the aforementioned 'Remember Me' and the less bombastic 'Something Wicked' there is plenty of the kind of aesthetic Radio 2 could and should have lapped up. And then there's the magnificent 'Lately', a 14-and-a-half minute romp through sensitive melody and eventually psychedelic, ear-drum shattering volume and feedback, in this writer's eyes their most prolific moment to date.
Just like the original release, the collection of extra tracks accompanying the reissue almost deserves to be approached as a separate album in its own right. All the tracks slot together effortlessly and certainly bare the band's signature quirkiness, but only really the mid-paced, beautiful 'A Lovely Day Tomorrow' and the acoustic waltz of 'Good Good Boys' sound like they'd resound in the original track-listing.
Again, the diversity of the song-writing shows the full breadth of BSP's scope. 'Albert's Eyes' and 'Moley & Me' are both shrouded in the band's classic idiosyncracies and production mysticism, the latter especially an odd-ball story that feels almost like a faux children's night time tale made up in a flat kitchen after several bottles of wine (sample lyric: "Moley & Me, we would spend our time killing everybody"). The Morrissey-esque pitch black humour lives most fervently in 'Salty Water', an ode to drowning.
The instrumental couplet of 'Birdy' and 'Heavenly Waters' increases the scope further. The former is a spectral, looping ditty that sounds like the lunch-time overture in a Sussex beach cafe where Aidan Moffat sits scribbling down ideas for the next L.Pierre album. The latter is a sprawling 7 minutes of post-rock that sets the precedent for their vision on their soundtrack for Penny Woolcock's 2012 documentary From The Sea to the Land Beyond. 'Apologies to Insect Life (Russian Rock Demo)' is a slightly stripped down but no less physical, instrumental version of the track of the same name and offers a delightful glimpse into the raucous evolution process of the band's music.
Just like when it was originally released in 2003, this reissue won't reach the ears or minds of the majority of the record buying public, at least not in the way it deserves. In a way then, it offers much more to people like me, already totally absorbed in the band's character and narrative and forever wanting more of the same. To neither the band nor the people already aware, album sales don't really matter anymore in regards to this release. It's there for the purest reason possible; so that the previously unheard recorded versions of some of these tracks can be lapped up and so that revisiting the original songs continues to be a pleasure. For an album and aesthetic as beautiful and selfless as that of The Decline of British Sea Power, the peaceful notion that their offering their fans more is enough. That idea has always been at the centre of most great rock music; it's just a shame it's not realised more.