I had this flagged as the only album on the Mercury shortlist that I thought I might be interested in listening to and then as I was completing an entire circuit of the M25 at about two in the morning (long story) a track came on the radio which saved me from torpor and a possible accident. As it finished, the reassuringly husky tones of Bob Harris informed me that it was Kalypso, a highlight of Twice Born Men but by no means the only gem on an album that bookies have given no chance of winning this evening - but when did they ever call this one correctly?
Taking their name from the central character in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five the band have been labelled as art-rock by some. There is certainly something experimental in their sound and in their instrumentation, the aforementioned Kalypso lists a 'tuned dishwasher' for instance, and the liner notes for this album almost say more about the cover art than the music contained within. The nautical theme of that chalk drawing runs throughout the album with the lyrics continually referencing images of ship and sailcloth, themes of journey and discovery.
Here It Begins opens with what sounds like a tolling bell but distorted and flickering like a scratched CD. A sampled voice talks of the joy of being on the move and a single guitar slowly picks out a melody with lots of other 'sounds' creating a fuller soundscape. Truth Only Smiles features the banjo playing of Anthony Bishop which features strongly on the album. Despite the soaring and sing-along chorus there's a dark heart to this tale 'With easy grace and needy hands/They murdered love’s sweet circumstance/And calmly fashioned flawless alibis'. Tim Elsenburg's voice has a definite hint of Guy Garvey about it which may be another reason why the prize may elude them, but the men's voices combine well on this track. There's a melancholy to Bloodless Coup both in the lyrics -'What’s to overthrow/When everything you know’s corrupted/No matter what you do', the heavy vibrato from Elsenburg (which may not be to all tastes) and that banjo once again. Guitars come in to give it some bite before it ends on a yearning note again.
Longshore Drift is a slightly more challenging track, the lyrics repeating and the melody carried only by the vocal which has an air of declamatory Bowie about it. Electronic beeps and sounds accompany the strings which take over halfway through and you'd be forgiven at this point for thinking of Radiohead's Kid A with the refusal to make things easy. That said we then have Kalypso which is as easy a track to love as you could hope for. A tale of 'Two tiny ships on vast horizons', it is filled with nautical images, interesting instrumentation and a melody that tugs at the old heart strings.
Future Perfect Tense opens and closes with a syncopated bass that has a jazz influence and had me thinking of Radiohead once again (I really need to stop saying that, don't I). Sandwiched in the middle is the banjo which when combined with more lyrics of a nautical nature continues the combination of folk that links both land and sea. Joy Maker Machinery is firmly rooted to the ground, beginning slowly and with an almost melancholy air, but the positivity of the lyrics (The newborn blush that makes us drunk/On every little kiss) and the combined vocals help to lift it into the air. The hymn-like There Will It End brings things to a close with a togetherness that feels like a fireside singalong. There is a slight ponderousness to this and some other parts of the album which may put some off, but if you've the time there is always something going on in the textured soundscapes to keep it interesting.
The Mercury Music Prize is for the album of the year and the unifying themes and structure of Twice Born Men make it a definite album as opposed to collection of songs but its similarities to last years winner may keep it from the prize. It already feels as though the nights are closing in again and I can well imagine myself putting this on as the elements rage outside, a perfect place to find refuge and shelter.