[ARCHIVE] This post was first published on 14th August 2013.
It was my birthday on the 12th of July, and two days before I received an early present: the release of Sam Brawn’s tenth public release: the six track Nobody’s EP.
Nobody’s is in fact his second EP, though many of my readers will doubtless not realise it, for it was never distributed, and had it not been listed on Sam’s Bebo page (that’s right, that’s how far back we’re going, to a time before Facebook), its very existence might be unrecognised. Entitled Latin Crush EP, it contained the titular track, as well as a few others that later became Sam‘s first album. It also contained ‘The Place In My Head’ – the first song Sam ever wrote (aged 12). The difference between the two EPs, and thus the beginning of Sam’s musical history and the present day, is perhaps best encapsulated in this description from Sam himself: “Looking back, it was just a jumble of surrealistic imagery set over five or six awkward power chords. I like to think I’ve come a long way.”
In the trailer, Sam told us to ‘prepare for the dreamiest folk music you’ve ever heard.’ As a particular fan of Sam’s ‘comfy chair music’, this excited me, and put me in mind of his second 2009 release, Lullabies before the Storm, a similarly relaxed album.
When I asked Sam why, after nine albums, he chose to revert to the EP style of release, he pointed to his nature as an unsigned artist with no band to support him. He described the situation: “For once I have not bitten off more than I could chew. I have bitten off just the right amount and I am chewing well.”
Sam’s gamble has paid off. The result is a shorter release, but of a very high standard, which allows Sam to showcase more effectively his wide range of skills, particularly when considering how those skills might be transferred to live performance. At present, Sam is writer, composer, recording artist, drummer, guitarist, vocalist, bassist, keyboardist – and every other role that you might be able to think of. Of course, without the benefit of layering, Sam cannot do all of these tasks at once, and it seems that his folk music serves him better here, with a tighter range of instruments, much as he played in 2010 on university radio.
Another advantage of an EP is that it gives listeners a chance to get to know individual tracks better, and reduces the risk of the album being lumped together as a single entity in a listener’s mind, as can be the case for albums. This is perilous, especially in the case of Sam’s music, which is highly individual even compared to another track in the same release To my ear the result was six songs, each standing strong on its own while complementing its brothers.
My first listen was to the EP as a whole, in order and without stopping. Later I listened to individual tracks again, better to get a feel for them. As always, Sam’s work is finely crafted, improving in parallel with his ever-increasing skill. This is clear not only in the way he plays but in the integrity of his recording. Every word is crystal clear to understand – an issue which had troubled Sam from time to time in earlier releases. Ironically, it is on this release that my iPod displayed lyrics already attached to the song.
What of the songs themselves? Well, Sam makes a strong start with the first track, ‘Wild Blue.’ The mood is instantly calm, laid-back: a guitar track laid over something more peripheral and exotic. And then comes the singing. Sam’s lyrics are increasingly poetic, and perhaps a little too abstract (for my ears, at least): while he does still write songs whose subject matter can easily be recognised (OML‘s ‘Upset Fire’ etc.), the days are seemingly gone when Sam used his music to tell the story of nearly being mugged (‘Promise Me Nothing’ from Expressionism), ‘charity fatigue’ (‘Sailing around the Moon for Charity’ from LAS) or a hatred of cricket (‘Pray for Rain’, from S&F). While the subject matter is often less clear cut than in the past (and let‘s be honest, a degree in English Literature will do that to you), Sam certainly does not mince his words, even now. For example, in ‘Wild Blue‘, which Sam sets in the biblical Garden of Eden, the person to whom he is singing (speaking?) is described thus:
“You were the snake / Telling me to love her / You curled your tongue / Around my heart“
Strong, impassioned words, with perhaps a little more than a sting in the tail: the snake is, after all, the character who tempted Adam and Eve. The song does not identify this matchmaker, and I doubt that we shall know for certain who, if anybody, Sam has in mind; but real or fictional, their services seem not to have been appreciated.
The fifth track, another of my favourites, has the speaker confront somebody who used to know him. An old friend? Lover? Again, we cannot know for certain who this person is, but it stands in a tradition within Sam’s songs of re-visiting people from the past: old flames, forgotten friends. Although the words to this song were written by Sam’s friend and fellow King’s English graduate Simon Jared, Sam sets them to music and makes them his own, and the result is a song which stands firmly in Sam’s tradition. Compare the words of ‘Too Old To Be Told’ with another similar track:
Everything has turned to blue,
‘You Are A Memory‘
Lost at Sea (2007)
There‘s a remembrance etched
‘Too Old To Be Told’
The last track of the EP is another strong narrative song: ‘Sleep Tight, Little Moonbeam’ shows three episodes of a relationship. Our protagonist first loves, and then loses the person he loves. His lover finds somebody else, and prepares to marry her new fiancé. However, on the day of the wedding, she goes back to our protagonist, confessing that she cannot go through with the wedding and imploring him to run away with her. In the chorus the protagonist prophesied that ‘some day we will run away.’ But when it came to it, did they run away together? The song is silent on the matter as it comes to a close.
I doubt that there is a single central character at the heart of Sam’s narratives: even discounting the tale of adventure in ‘Jabberwocky’, our protagonist would be a French coal miner from the 18th century, who lost a classics teacher in 2004, was nearly mugged in 2006 and was saddened by the 2011 riots. But even so, there is a distinct note of remembrance –but more than that, of a very special anamnesis, running through Sam‘s music: not merely the calling to mind of past events and people, but reliving and re-visiting them, making them real and present again, through the recollection.
Nobody’s EP is a quiet, unassuming collection of tracks, but with a core strength that holds it all together. It is this, with a set of well-crafted lyrics, that makes Nobody’s Sam‘s strongest piece of work to date. What will come next? Only time will tell…