By: Will Pinfold
Iggy Pop / Tarwater / Alva Noto | website |
Much more than a spoken word EP, but not exactly this year’s ‘Lust For Life’ (or indeed this year’s ‘Après’ – much underrated though that is), Leaves of Grass is the immortal poetry of Walt Whitman recited (but better than that sounds) in the inimitable voice of Iggy Pop, over the moody electronica of Tarwater and Alva Noto.
It’s an inspired combination; like Whitman, Iggy is an American icon who has achieved an uneasy kind of respectability, but whose work utterly rejects the kind of wholesomeness beloved of middle America, while celebrating the utter freedom that was always America’s declared birthright. It’s a dynamic, gripping album, completely free of pretension and the slightly embarrassing tweeness that is the hallmark of so much neo-beatnik recitation. Somewhat unexpectedly, Iggy turns out to be one of those rare individuals, like Gil Scott-Heron or Linton Kwesi Johnson, who can deliver poetry to the listener with all of its meaning intact, without posturing and without dominating the pieces to the detriment of the music.
It’s a true collaboration; the music is not merely a backdrop to the vocal, each piece is more than the sum of its parts and the music that Carsten Nicolai (Alvo Noto) and Tarwater is carefully modulated to the mood of the verse and voice and the whole is brilliantly produced, ensuring that the vocals are always perfectly audible and warm without becoming separated from the music that carries them.
All that said, it’s ultimately Iggy that makes the album work so well. As a purely instrumental work the album/EP (grey area; it’s about 25 minutes long) would still be supremely listenable. The atmospheric, low key hip-hop-flavoured tunes have a modern noir-ish flavour, while the percussive clatter of tunes like ‘To The Garden The World’ have a DJ Shadow-meets-Tom Waits feel that is intensely evocative; but not necessarily evoking the tempestuous life of nineteenth century America captured by Whitman. But when that instantly familiar, rough but friendly voice, comfortable but never safe; the voice of experience – delivers the verse, it has an immediacy that brings the times and personality of Whitman effortlessly to life.
Indeed, the Iggy Pop persona; wild but articulate, sensitive but tough, turns out to be the perfect vehicle for delivering Whitman’s vivid, sensual free verse. An unexpected triumph and, like so many of Iggy’s best records, utterly life-affirming.