Crescent :: By The Roads And The Fields

Crescent’s By The Roads and The Fields isn’t a lost album. But it has always sounded slightly untethered from its era. By the time of its release in 2003, the extraordinary mid-to-late 90s out-rock scene in and around Bristol, UK was already in recession. Movietone released its final album in November of that year. Flying Saucer Attack had commenced a long hiatus after 2000’s Mirror. Matt Jones himself had not released any music under the Crescent moniker since the low-fidelity abrasion of 1998’s Collected Songs. Crescent’s fourth album By The Roads still bears traces of the dreamy “rural psychedelia” that famously characterized the Bristol scene, but the album strains after a certain sharpness and concreteness—like a ghost trying to materialize in broad daylight. By The Roads is not a lost album, by any means, but it is indeed a mysterious one. For twenty years now, it has been hiding in plain sight.

By The Roads and The Fields is certainly not without precedent. One could justly place it in the lineage of Great Britain’s musical hermits and weirdos: Wyatt and Drake, Fay and Tibet. There are manifest currents of acid folk and industrial esoterica running through the album, alongside strains of smeared jazz and skeletal dub. Some of By the Roads’s clatter and drone parallel the ramshackle free-rock revolution breaking out all over America and New Zealand and Finland in those years, but the resemblance is never more than a passing one. Perhaps closer to the mark are the deconstructed folk-forms of Gastr del Sol and the metaphysical art-rock of the final Talk Talk albums. But the lines of inheritance all seem to end there. By The Roads has many ancestors but few descendants. It is hard to think of any artists in the intervening decades drawing directly on the sound of Crescent’s scrapheap illuminations. While Crescent’s label Fat Cat was at the time releasing and distributing maximalist, splatter-paint epics by the likes of Animal Collective and Black Dice, which in their own ways set the tone for much of the ensuing decade of music, the pale, spectral form of By The Roads barely cast a shadow on the future. This only reinforces the sense that something singular has happened here.

The perfectly ordinary title By The Roads and The Fields is aptly chosen, because the album returns over and over again to the idea that everyday life, properly apprehended, discloses something numinous. Like any spiritual conviction, the prospect that it might be true becomes a source of both consolation and terror. And throughout the album, these fleeting moments of epiphany threaten to undo the world. “This will be our new language,” Jones croaks over a Spanish guitar in the opening seconds of the album’s first track, “Spring,” a resolution to read the built environment as a kind of holy writ.

Clear and sharp in the clean light
Bright streets before anyone’s awake
An alphabet of all things

Kate Wright (of Movietone) on a “homemade double bass” and Jasper Larsen’s spare, malleted percussion together make a rustic dub. A cheap organ flares up. And Matt Jones bleats on, in a strangled monotone, something between reportage and incantation. His narrator observes the mundane world, “wallpaper on a building where a house stood/cowrie shells carried through the snow,” and reassures himself that it will all mean something. Because a “kind of spring is coming/everything will be revealed.” But it is not guaranteed that it will. And Jones keeps thinking of “countries where I cannot read,” which may be the foreign cities mentioned elsewhere on the album, or simply anywhere that the world becomes opaque. “I’m learning to read/simple beautiful reality,” Jones insists “. . . like coming home.” This is the creed of By the Roads and The Fields, the hope that the world might become legible.

The question then is what becomes of the world when we are not there to apprehend it. In the loping folk of “New Leaves,” Jones takes notice of the budding foliage and repeatedly proclaims, “I’m trying to know what each moment asks me/I’m trying to do what each moment asks me.” But in the bridge, he confesses the secret dread that the beautiful things of the world might disappear when we are not there to bear witness to them.

My only fear is that in the depths of the night
The leaves will fall asleep and be lost
My only fear is that in the depths of the night
The leaves will forget what they are and give up.

And with this strange, solipsistic reverie that the world exists to the extent that we pay attention to it, the organ returns to sinister effect, stabbing and demented, as Jones raves, “I hope you know what to do.” Jones keeps staging these encounters with the ordinary world, in which the beholder and the thing beheld keep threatening to overwhelm one another.

This takes on an almost apocalyptic cast in one of the album’s most stunning tracks, the woozy, cabaret of “Fountains.” Wandering through an unnamed city (perhaps Nevers, France, where the fountains are, perhaps Bristol), the narrator beholds a world in disassembly: “The strong nails that hold things together/have flown into the evening sky.” Drunken horns flood in: Sam Jones on soprano sax, George McKenzie on tenor, Rachel Coe (on Flying Saucer Attack) on clarinet, and the narrator hears the music made by the fountains, a song which ties the distant regions of the globe together, and “everything becomes transparent.” The narrator hears the fountains and the swallows and the trains heading out to the cities of Europe. “I don’t know whether they’re calling me/to freedom or to fall apart.” It is another frightening moment of transcendence. “Hold your heart together,” he tells himself, as the song unravels into free jazz abstraction.

On the second side, there is the old-world melodica lament of “Mimosa,” a song about the end of summer; and the quavering, Jandekian psych-folk of “River Debris.” On “Mica,” Crescent makes a West Country gamelan of china bowls, wine glasses, bird chirps and brass pineapple; and perhaps comes closest to the folk rites of the Jewelled Antler on the other side of the ocean. The incredible nine-minute album closer, “Structure and Form,” is funereal jazz, haunted by Sam Jones’s screeching ‘saxacorder’ (“a recorder with a saxophone mouthpiece taped on,” according to the liner notes), while Matt Jones croons of the fundamental elements of the city, coalescing into wholeness:

Columns, balconies
Staircases and fruit trees
Ashtrays, dancehalls
Cinemas, hospitals
Railways and flooded fields
The view over the city at night
Shimmering clouds of points of light
Music of space and form and weight
A silent catalytic grace

Every once in awhile, “Structure and Form” reminds us, one can see the entirety. “Everything is transformed,” Jones promises in the album’s final line, as the jazz breaks down into scrap and drone, and then silence.

Crescent’s By The Roads and The Fields is not, at least outwardly, a work of faith, but it is a work of fidelity. The album is about faithfully waiting for the world to appear; about being there, present, when something beautiful happens or when some unforeseen connection is suddenly made manifest. This is why Jones’s lyrics move imperceptibly between merely naming things and summoning them. It is the occultism of ordinary life. Perhaps it is not for everyone, but it has been out there, waiting, for twenty years now. Everyone should at least listen once. It is like being made privy to a great secret. | b sirota

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