Lo-fi folk blends with rich string arrangements and exquisite interplay between vocalists Erland Cooper and Hannah Peel while found recordings such as documentaries, public information films and even sat-nav directions are frequently worked into the mix.
"Death in The Woods" is a particularly captivating number with jaunty, fairytale folk and whispered lyrics offering enticing glimpses of a town endowed with magic and mystery. "Signs" covers the whole spectrum of low and high production values. It opens with what sounds like an Open University lecture and a grainy drum machine. Acoustic guitar strumming accompanies murmuring vocals which are slowly wrapped in expansive string arrangements.
"Exit" is more sparse. Piano and guitar melodies give prominence to tender lyrics. A crescendo of strings gently builds and collapses as fireworks explode. It feels like the end of the main act with the remaining three songs providing a sublime encore. "The Silver Birch" gushes frolicking melodies, "Northway Southway" is mighty and gentle and a cover of "Run of The Mill" by George Harrison, a famous early advocate of Transcendental Meditation, ties the album up neatly.
Prospect of Skelmersdale presents a hazy sequence of tales and images. It’s not easy to piece together or get one’s bearings, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s music to get lost in as the trio transcend the bricks and mortar of the mundane world to reach a higher plain.
Opening track Jai Guru Dev starts with a raga-like drone and chanted group vocals before a sampled female voice with perfect BBC diction invites us to ‘hold hands around the outer perimeter of the Golden Dome site’ in order to bless the opening of the centre at the Ideal Village. A blessing like this, as well as being a simple prologue, is a kind of affirmation giving the musicians symbolic freedom to further tackle their subject. Pennylands does so with urgent acoustic guitar and more overlayed group vocals as well a string section – chamber pop meets the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
Death In The Woods feels like one of the record’s defining moments, describing the quotidian in exalted terms – a combination of banality and spirituality, synthy blips and earthy vocals. Sandy Lane once again makes use of sampled speech, acoustic guitar and gently ornamental strings. The result is something like a cross between John Cameron’s Kes soundtrack and the orchestral (or-kestral?) pop of the Divine Comedy.
Signs combines history lesson (a telling reference to Thomas More’s Utopia) with a melancholy personal narrative, Cooper’s voice swelling in and slipping out of the mix to great effect, while Little Jerusalem is maybe Peel’s standout vocal performance, another tale of small-town ennui and loneliness set before a musical backdrop that threatens to swoon into Cocteau Twins territory, but restrains itself throughout.
Remains Of Elmer is striking for its manipulation of found sounds and its repeated, descending electric guitar part, while Cergy-Pontoise‘s (it’s Skelmersdale’s twin town, if you’re wondering) percussion could almost have been glam in another life. Exit begins with sweet, simple piano – almost Satie-esque – before sampling a generic Sat Nav, which brilliantly becomes a metaphor for separation in this beautifully aching song. Then there is a well chosen, piano-led cover of Run Of The Mill, originally by everyone’s favourite musical transcendentalist, George Harrison, sung here beautifully by Peel.
In all probability Prospect Of Skelmersdale won’t find a home under the hauntology banner – it doesn’t sit comfortably with the rustic occultism at one end of the spectrum or with the techy, depressed minimalism at the other end. But despite that, it creates a sound – temporally disjointed, difficult to pin down – that appeals to the part of our subconscious mind that ‘remembers’ possible but unrealised futures, and does so in a way that is both hopeful and melancholy. It is a rare album that manages to be socially aware without being preachy, sonically vibrant without being derivative, but this one ticks all the right boxes. A superbly refreshing listen.