Be More Kind: How This Message Threads Through XMR's First Three Albums of 2018
Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly, Will Varley and Ducking Punches
Words by Brad Barrett
- 18 / 03 / 2018 -
Be More Kind, the title of Frank Turner's seventh album, is a striking response to recent events. No matter what vague area of the political spectrum you're on, daily we’re being peppered with a barrage of news, little barbs that make it just that little bit harder to feel good or stay consistently our best. Music, though, acts like a gauze for our hearts and minds. The best music comes with a sense of understanding, the feel of a familiar place, brings you confidence from knowing you’re not alone and reminds you to share that with others. We all need to be kinder to each other when the world seems that much less inclined to be. Ask yourself, does music you listen to reflect that at times when you need it most?
The underlying theme of the first three albums Xtra Mile Recordings has released in 2018 seem to try being there for us and appear concerned with the well-being of the world. It helps that the three individuals – Sam Duckworth, Will Varley and Dan Allen (of Ducking Punches) – are politically astute and socially aware people who can’t help but be affected by the rampage of elections and bad feelings. But rather than taking to the barricades and yelling about things they disagree with, or ignoring it completely, their music is more personal and nuanced which makes these records that we can hold close.
“On the borders in our heads between things that can and can't be said
We stopped talking to each other and there's something wrong with that”
Resurrecting Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly. seemed to be one way in which Sam could felt he could tackle the current climate; it's an identity that has often taken on the establishment and discussed his social conscience. Yet Young Adult is a surprise in its subtlety. Especially after the exuberant swells of his 2016 moniker Recreations (best sampled on the full-length album Baby Boomers 2), Get Cape’s first album in four years is more patient, reasoned and eloquent than expected. Sam is not a quiet or shy person when campaigning for justice and due compensation to the victims of the Grenfell fire in 2017 and, before that vicious blend of government callousness and corporate incompetence, being vocal about the failure of the metropolitan core to understand how Brexit happened. But rather than fierce slaloming verse as you might expect, Young Adult is a lot more intimate and personal. Sam seems to have approached politics on the album from “how did we get here?”, even “is this my fault?”, and not “I’m blaming you”. It’s most explcit in the words from opening track 'Adults': “I read things everyday/’bout what makes us this way/I know the words are loaded I’m/not sure I can decode it right.” Considering how it feels, daily, with shots being fired between friends, those with different opinions, and innocents not even meaning to say anything of note, it’s refreshing that the feeling you’re left with after listening to the album is one of inclusion. It feels kinder to discuss and reflect than point fingers and accuse.
With everything that’s happening fed through Get Cape’s perspective, his thoughts and meanderings through the minefield of the everyday, you feel safe and empowered. The music flings from sombre to carefree, while absolutely coalescing into one cohesive statement. There's humour, self-deprecation, and navel-gazing, but never at the expense of his conviction. The undoubted highlight is ‘Always’, produced by drum and bass purveyor Shy FX. But rather than an all-out banger, another expectation is flipped as it’s a shadowy, slow burn lament with echoes of club nights long closed down turned over to introspection. There’s both anger and despair here but it’s filtered through a warm, close relationship, nurturing the understanding while recognising the differences between two people. It’s a remarkable snapshot of how we can best help and strive to be better.
“I’m another self-employed futureless kid annoyed nothing ever changes here for the better” - 'Man2Man'
“I gave up making scrapbooks when I moved into full employment, I gave up chasing moments, they seldom arrive” - 'Scrapbooks'
“I wish you could be free, it’s becoming clear ot me, you’re a prisoner of insecurity, don’t be scared now you got this, I’ll be your side, always” - 'Always'
“I’m an anthropologist, amateur psychologist, pondering Nietsche while ordering a pizza / What’s a battelcry if it falls on deaf ears, what’s a battlecry without the fear?” - 'VHS Forever'
“I don’t want to be afraid of the decisions I make / I just want to feel alive / Chance’d be nice” – 'What Haves'
“In a world that has decided that it's going to lose its mind
Be more kind, my friends, try to be more kind”
Will Varley has really come a long way since his first two records. He’s been moved to write about people being caught in the gargantuan machinery of capitalism before, but songs like ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ and ‘To Build A Wall’ really captured the melancholy we feel about the inevitability of it. Kingsdown Sundown had a downbeat, trodden on feel, with ‘Something is Breaking’, ‘We Want Our Planet Back’ and its closer ‘We’ll Keep Making Plans’ really feeling like the misty dawn before the apocalypse.
With his latest, Spirit of Minnie, perhaps he’s feeling braver and more optimistic surrounded by a full complement of musicians; It sounds less like a world that is doomed and more one with a desire to keep us buoyant in the flood. Though something like ‘Screenplays’ might sound like criticism of the ways we choose (or maybe don’t even choose) to live our lives, to these ears there’s a refusal to fall into fatally jaded thinking, and it’s actually a message of camaraderie. Will Varley sounds like a sweetheart thoughout the record, neither judging nor commiserating but saying “yes, I know, I’ve been there and this is how we’re going to help each other”.
It’s by far his most uplifting and fascinating album. The ambience and sounds of glass upon string are more like hymns to the ordinary. His songs are folk tales of longevity, of eternity, of fatalism without hopelessness. ‘Breaking the Bread’, more than anything, sounds like a love song for everyone and on some evenings, dim afternoons or dreary dawns, that’s all we’d need to have the strength to face the day. While his last two albums explored the state of the global nation, Spirit of Minnie wants to lift us all up, perhaps so we can all solve the problems we’ve wrought or are failing to deal with. He's gathered a community and we feel stronger together, especially while singing these songs. There's strength in these numbers.
“Tried a new brand, dyed your hair, found a new station but nothing changed / you left your old job, you tried to find God, you didn’t have the patience so nothing changes / but we’ve been here before, crossing this bridge, same conversation just a little less pissed / it’s just the days passing us by and we will all write screenplays in the sky” - 'Screenplays'
“We compare ourselves too much to the things we ain’t / And all the things that hold you back are the same things that make you great....we stayed up til the morning and exchanged keys to our heads / through laughter and through talking we were waking the dead” - 'Breaking the Bread'
“But there’s ghosts at every door lurking throug my mind trying to find things to destroy / and I’m sure it’s speeding up; a decade to me now is like a summer when I was a boy” - 'Statue'
“She was here when the cowboys came runing and she’ll be here when this is all sand / Seen the spirit of Minnie, so playful and wild / To us she is vast and ancient but to the universe she is just a child" - 'Spirit of Minnie'
“My parents made me out of alcohol and boredom / I provided purpose, a distraction for them just for a little while unitl I was old enough to ask them why…” - 'Insect'
“You should know you're not alone
Trouble comes and trouble goes”
Alamort is a statement of absolute ferocity by Ducking Punches. You don’t call an album ‘exhausted, half-dead’ without the lyrical punch to back it up. And Dan Allen yells with all their heart. “I need help / Please come around / I hate myself and the man I’ve become’ – holy shit. It is not easy to hear, and your heart goes out to them in the first few minutes of ‘With Unfounded Hope’. You only have to look at some of the other titles for further proof of the hurt they've felt in recent times: ‘Missing You Is Killing Me’, ‘I Ruin Everything’ and ‘I Felt Uncomfortable’. However, if there’s anything that some of the best records of recent years have taught us – from Home, Like Noplace Is There to Tape Deck Heart – it’s that cathartic experiences can be healing.
Though in sound, Ducking Punches thoughtfully give us more air-punching moments than trying to tear new holes in their despair, they’re punctuated with realisations that relaying feelings, talking, trying to feel better is the way to deal with the harm we do to each other, ourselves or have done to us. ‘Smoking Spot’ (“let’s get high enough to talk about how we feel”), ‘Distant Shadows’ (“kids with vertigo looking for heights / Trying to trick our brains into feeling alright”), and ‘I Was Uncomfortable’ (“You’re wishing hard that I’m OK”) all seem to deal with this. And surely Dan gets as much being able to seal these feelings in songs, send them out into the ears of listeners, and then have them yelled back to them at venues in the UK, Europe and wherever else Ducking Punches get to play. The key thing is that to get better, we need to ask ourselves uneasy questions. While the album is far more insular in content, the lessons learned and the crescendo of feeling feel absolutely universal and are a remiinder to look out for each other, and look after yourself too.
"Kids with vertigo looking for heights / Trying to trick our brains into feeling alright" - 'Distant Shadows'
"I am stronger than you said I was / My self doubt is dead and so is God" - 'Je Vais Mourir'
"There's a certain eloquence to the way I stumble over my words / Like an accidental ballet of the literary inept / You said this tortured artist shit that I keep pulling / Is fucking pathetic, I know I'm pathetic" - 'Face the Faxe'
“There are many nights where I've wanted to die / Life is more than merely staying alive" - 'I Ruin Everything'
“Like a beacon reaching out to you and yours, for me and mine
Be more kind, my friends, try to be more kind”
This trio of records represent the current peak of artists that, in their worldview and personal perspective, seem to express the virtue of being more kind - to others and to themselves. But each one coaxes a different reaction. Get Cape wants you to think and feel broadly as sparser sounds with a diversity of moods leave room for you to embrace a particular phrase or tone freely. Will Varley draws you into a low-lit den to hear tales steeped in folklore, self-analysis and unity. Ducking Punches raze inhibitions to the ground, explicitly coping with the hard times through catharsis. But the message through them all is that kindness goes a long way - be kinder to yourself, be kinder to your community, be kinder to your loved ones and perhaps, with all of us pulling together, we’ll get through whatever it is we’re living through on both a personal and a global level. It’s worth thinking about and it’s absolutely worth listening to.