Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Post-Folk: Objects by The Nightjar

The word 'folk' used to refer to a type of music designed to be enjoyed by large groups of people. Old-fashioned folk songs aimed to create a feeling of community and togetherness, emphasising simple tunes and lyrics that everyone could join in with. Far more recently, 'folk' has come to denote a far lonelier sort of music: the word now gets thrown at acts like Bon Iver and Nick Drake and early-period Leonard Cohen. These days, 'folk' is one person with an acoustic guitar singing fragile, solitary-sounding songs to a room full of quiet, attentive listeners rather than to a choir of bawdy drunks in a crowded pub.

The Nightjar are a band from London who describe themselves as making "lo-fi post-folk" music. As the phrase 'post-folk' suggests, their sound is a step beyond that of the quivering, poetic mopes who commonly purport to be 'folk' musicians nowadays - not only is their particular twist on folk music not designed for consumption by large, loud groups of people, you almost get the sense that it's designed for a time when all other people have disappeared off the face of the Earth entirely.

69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields features a song called Two Kinds of People, which goes like this:
"There are two kinds of people: a) my love and I; b) other 
Two kinds of people: 1) the grey, and 2) me and my lover."
This song has been described as "a kind of solipsism for two", conjuring up a world in which only two people - the singer and his lover - truly exist, and everyone else is just filler if they're even there at all. Objects, The Nightjar's debut album, evokes a similar sort of scene: two people walking hand-in-hand across some deserted beach as night falls on a world wiped clean of all but two inhabitants. "Songs for the end of time" is how The Nightjar sum up their repertoire, but while the sparse, brooding arrangements do indeed imbue Objects with a kind of 'after the end' feel, this album is one of the most romantic pieces of post-apocalyptic fiction you're ever likely to encounter. With nobody else left around, our two protagonists begin to feel as though the whole world - or what's left of it, anyway - was made just for them. Just for them to enjoy; just for them to stroll through, hand in hand; just for them to explore, trying to make sense of whatever was there before.

A more traditional type of folk music is represented here by two tracks: Dle Yaman, a plaintive rendition of an Armenian folk song accompanied only by the ominous arpeggios of a church organ; and Hangman, The Nightjar's take on a very old song also known as 'The Maid Freed from the Gallows' (number 144 in the Roud Folk Song Index). It's tempting to view these as artefacts that survived whatever unseen armageddon left our two lovers entirely alone with each other - just another couple of found 'objects' like the Wardrobe and the Cockleshell after which two of the LP's other tracks are named - but Hangman in particular bears certain parallels to the overarching 'just the two of us' theme of the album itself.

This song tells the story of a young woman awaiting execution by hanging; she sees her mother coming and urges the hangman to hang fire for a moment in the hope that mum will be able to pay him off. However, the girl's mother has "brought no gold", and is merely there to watch her daughter die. The same thing then happens with her father; we never actually find out what crime the narrator committed, but both of her parents seem pretty eager to see her hanged for it.

Just as things are looking bleak and the song sounds as if it's about to disappear into nothing, a third potential rescuer appears on the horizon: the woman's lover. Unlike mum and dad, the lover has brought gold "to pay this hangman's fee", and so the woman is presumably un-noosed and allowed to ride off into the sunset with her beau as All You Need is Love plays over the end credits.

And this ties back perfectly into that 'solipsism for two' idea. The two lovers at the centre of Objects need only each other; everyone else might as well not even exist. This is folk music, but instead of catering to a large group of people, it lights a candle and sets a secluded table for two. It's post-folk music: folk music for when all the other folks are gone.

Objects is out now, and you can purchase it from The Nightjar's Bandcamp page.

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