I’m a sucker for spoken word albums. I’ve been collecting them for years. I’m pretty much open to anything, though my favourites tends to be misguided preachers talking to teens about drugs (there’s surprisingly many), or homespun philosophy from misogynist AM radio hosts, but really the urge for people to offer up a slice of their hard won (often questionable) wisdom over tepid synths or forgettable acoustic guitar is pretty much irresistible to me and should only be encouraged.
Yet in recent years, perhaps due to the rise of social media and the ability for authors and artists to easily produce their own content, they’ve been few and far between. That said we did enjoy the highly immersive otherworldly Chanctonbury Rings from Justin Hopper, Sharon Kraus and Belbury Poly a few years ago, which spoke of magik, myths and folklore on the West Sussex Downs. You can read our review here.
Unlike my aforementioned faves, Signs of Life is not only something not to be mocked, but similar to Chanctonbury Rings feels very much like a collaboration in the truest sense of the word. Neil Gaiman is an English author and screenwriter responsible for the likes of Neverwhere (1995), Stardust (1999), American Gods (2001), Anansi Boys (2005), and Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett, 1990). He met the Australian string quartet in 2010, when Sydney Opera House’s Graphic Festival commissioned FourPlay to write a soundtrack to Neil’s novella The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains for a live performance. And they’ve stayed in touch since and even toured together.
Signs of Life isn’t purely spoken word however. It exists in its own netherworld, somewhere between song and a musical accompaniment to poetry. It’s playful, dark, ridiculous, and earnest, where the music is as essential, creative and thematically appropriate as the words, and the way they engage and interact is nothing short of a joy. There’s a mutual respect, a clear understanding that music can go places words can’t and vice versa.
This is music that elevates you. Even the humour is intelligent. There’s something totally ridiculous about singing a song about how songs are lies put to music, or the frustrations you experience when you hang out with Joan of Arc, who’s a little upset about being burnt at the stake and has a nasty habit of bifurcating people who disagree with her. Yet there’s also more earnest pieces, such as ‘Credo’, which explores the power of ideas and how to manage people who disagree with us, or Gaiman’s January 26th poem, which speaks of the passing of time, of long extinct monsters and beasts roaming the land and our intrinsic need to destroy. He offers advice, reflection, wisdom, history and humour, and all the while FourPlay twist, turn and evolve beneath, in, and around his words. It’s ridiculously impressive. At one moment they sound like a string quartet in a concert hall, the next an indie rock band, the next they’re mimicking the Australian bush entering quasi-spiritual territory. They can be a Michael Nyman score on one piece and the next they’re the backing of a 50’s girl group. Is there anything they can’t do? Gaiman speaks, whispers and sings with ridiculously great timing and intonation. He was made for this. In fact there’s an ease with which both FourPlay and Gaiman slide between genres, between expectations, into this new thing – into this songstory? They both seem to be quite fond of the not knowing and moving beyond into something else, into their own genre. This probably explains why this collaboration is so successful.
It’s so playful, even when quietly reflective. There’s a pleasure that Gaiman articulates, his joy in playing with words, of laying one down after the other to create new meanings, in painting delicate little pictures to connect to our little worlds – in unburdening his mind, offering us a glimpse of his soul, and delivering it packaged precociously in rhyme. It’s head and heart all mashed together across the course of 50 odd minutes, and it’s impossible not to be affected. In fact that’s the key to this collaboration. You feel its creators are as entranced, affected and experiencing as much joy in its creation as we are.