Pastoral by Gazelle TwinRelease date: September 21, 2018
Label: Anti-Ghost Moon Ray
Hugely anticipated is an exhausted, if traditional, phrase in regards to new record releases but in the case of Gazelle Twin‘s return I think it’s justified. It’s been four years since the dizzying gut punch of Unflesh knocked the breath out of us and in that time much has changed. Elizabeth Bernholz, the artist behind Gazelle Twin‘s fixed grin, moved out to the country and had a child. It was also just at the time of the EU referendum. A divisive national moment and one which is perceived to have dramatically flared along the cultural fault lines between town and country. On Pastoral she appears as a kind of jester spirit and leads us on a dance through the recurring anxiety spiral of our national identity crisis.
The centuries old myth of the pastoral can be said to have played its part in this schism of course, a constant of our national self image, a mostly urban idea of the bucolic rural idyll, England as Eden, England before the fall. It’s there in every vague notion of moving to the country to feel ‘more connected to the earth’ or ‘at peace’ with yourself. A sense that rural life is somehow more authentic, simpler and more contented. You know the sort of stuff but, yeah, there’s not a lot of that here, Bernholz’s vision is more Lynchian, digging away at the cultural topsoil and into the blood soaked earth beneath.
The move to the country has not turned out a polite acoustic record. Although both the recorder and harpsichord appear, chopped, looped and processed, musically it’s much the same claustrophobic, industrial, electronica as before. ‘Better In My Day’ hammers away, blood pressure soaring as it rages through the familiar, rose tinted, delusions of its title. On ‘Little Lambs’ there’s quiet fury for the ultimate transgression, queue jumping. “Go ahead jump the line, No that’s just fine, That’s just fine” it seethes as the percussive grind is sprinkled with washed out rave confetti. It flutters on into the next track and similar old school techno sounds and touches appear across the whole album, like ghosts of lost ravers left wandering the fields.
They swirl on in circling, rising, anxiety through ‘Dieu Et Mon Droit’s bitter tirade. Now there’s a perfect four word provocation for our current moment, a centuries old royal motto, in French no less, emblazoned across the front of our passports whatever colour they are. In ‘Tea Rooms’ we’re tipped into an episode of self doubt in that most provincial of settings, “I don’t know what I’m doing here . . . I’m living in a pastoral picture”. The lyrics throughout the album display a startling poetic concision. There is much repetition but very little fat. The sighing “Cattle, cattle, Tearooms and road kill” is perfectly evocative. ‘Tea Rooms’ ends with the cawing of gathering crows and dissolves into an interlude called ‘Jerusalem’. William Blake’s patriotic smash (and unofficial national anthem) of the same name wonders if Christ himself ever walked our green pastures bringing a brief heaven on earth. In contrast Gazelle Twin gives us a phone call in which a concerned citizen reports an abandoned car only to be mocked by Mr Punch and submerges it in a pool of queasy, Coil-like, electronics.
The character has evolved and separated further from Bernholz. Gazelle Twin is now an ‘it’ not a ‘she’. If the blue costume of Unflesh was an anonymous mask allowing for the telling of dark internal truths its replacement is a hobby horse of a different colour. Robed in the red and white of the cross of St. George, Gazelle Twin is now some kind of mischievous spirit, a potent mix of scowling hoody wearing youth, morris dancer, court jester and folk devil. Its words still plunge us into cramped internal monologues but it now speaks in multiple voices, a nation’s worth of muttering resentment.
It’s not until ‘Hobby Horse’ rides up on its juddering, gammon punching beat that you realise the album’s central run of tunes has been almost entirely beat less. Gripping and rhythmic but mostly a patchwork landscape of incredible sound design. It’s sparse and effective, as with the lyrics it evokes so much more than is actually there by making just the right choices. We can’t help but view this record through the political framework of our time but Bernholz draws on centuries of national culture, pulling on threads of history and is careful not to deal in simple oppositions or red top hysteria. The B word is ever present but never spoken. In time, inevitably, some broadsheet cultural commentator will append the word ‘pop’ to it as an ugly descriptor to examine what response our songwriters come up with for these events. I’ll spare my own blushes and your delicate sensibilities by not doing so here, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Pastoral is an intuitive interrogation of the national psyche, a compulsive repetition, ancient myths and cheap tv heritage, a panic attack in Poundland. It’s not an easy record, it’s short on catchy choruses and you can’t dance to it but it is really quite brilliant.