The first decade of the 21st Century saw a handful of musicians invoke the spirit of ‘Albion’ in describing the England of Betjeman, Boudicca and Britten. An England of triumphal spirit, doff capped faux-patriotism and Cheshire cat grinned irreverence. The chief progeny of this group were the Libertines, a band with much to commend, though not their misty eyed pining for non-existent idyll with which their myth hungry fans so slavishly adhered. The Libertines untrue and unhelpful summary of the brilliance of Little England won them critical and commercial acclaim and a position in the upper echelons of lists detailing the albums which defined the decade. Albion played a big part in my own musical decade too. But a very different Albion from that in Peter Doherty’s mind.
In my own Albion the great social historians are Brightonian four piece Clearlake. Their debut album ‘Lido’, released by Domino in 2001, set end of the pier humour and kitchen sink drama to music inspired by a list of British pop auteurs including Messrs Gedge, Morrissey, Albarn and, bizarrely, George Formby. Its subtleties were overlooked by those who dwelled on the twee element of the (admittedly brilliant) paeans to jumble sales (‘Jumble Sailing’) and evocation of the famous British ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ attitude (‘These Things Are Meant to Try Us’). But songs such as ‘Sunday Evening’ with its chilly evocation that ‘…there isn’t much on except Songs of Praise…’ and the terse brilliance of ‘Something to Look Forward To’ said more about my teenage, middle class Albion in the rain swept Lake District than Wordsworth or Coleridge ever could. The album found beauty in absolute mundanity without ever seeking to eulogise or canonise it. That fact makes it brilliantly English in itself, but its capturing of the ‘Albion’ of Hugh Scully, briny seaside caffs and complex stoicism was its true magic.
Alas Lido, for all its might, was merely Clearlake lulling the listener into a cotton wool stuffed shoebox to ready them for their next act. The album that followed in 2003, ‘Cedars’, evokes a very different England – a sinister, wintry and ultimately claustrophobic place to live. The sonic stylings kept their traditional Anglo-pop bent but allied it to a more full on sensory experience which borrowed heavily, but choicely, from early 90s shoegaze bands such as My Bloody Valentine and album producer Simon Raymonde’s own band The Cocteau Twins. Songwriter Jason Pegg also abandoned the frailty which was central to Lido’s charm, ‘Cedars’ answer to ‘These Things Are Meant To Try Us’ was the stinging and spiteful ‘Keep Smiling’ a song which taught of grinning through a lost argument whilst masking inherent rage.
‘Keep Smiling’ was only the tip of the iceberg. ‘Cedars’ embittered heart lay in the self doubting trio of ‘The Mind is Evil’, ‘I’d Like to Hurt You’ (choice lyric – ‘I wouldn’t hurt a fly/but I’d really like to punish you’) and ‘Come Into the Darkness’ which dealt with the singer’s own darkest thoughts. But how does that relate to ‘Albion’? In the same way that Charles Dickens or Emily Brontë (and indeed Kate Bush) evoked England through the innermost horrors of Miss Havisham or Cathy Earnshaw – a dark and imperfect England. A true England. Not the imperfect England of mass immigration, social impropriety and crime as projected by the politically extreme but the England of the socially embittered liberal – an England which is just fine, but I wouldn’t mind if it was just that bit better thank you very much. The trick of ‘Cedars’ is in making this ‘Albion’. Again, the talent for spotting the mystic in the prosaic is on hand – the fact that trees grow amid the smog of central London (‘Trees in the City’) or a mid-Summer notion about the coming weather (‘I Wonder If the Snow Will Settle’) and finally, and most poetically in turning in on ones own self doubt in the imploring ‘Treat Yourself With Kindness’ which is in turns wonderful and understatedly blithe.
This England described by Clearlake in ‘Cedars’ is the country where I love to live, my Albion captured. The England where cups of tea come overflowing with bitter folly but where poetry is found in biscuit tins and on washing lines and in the snug at the village pub. Moaning and paranoid, but hopeful. Ever hopeful.