This is romance. Romance is real. Romance isn’t smoke billowing from the factory chimneys, or washing blowing softly on the line. Romance is the messy, muddled, loveliness of our real lives, the dread, the danger, the drama of it. Cherry Ghost’s second album, ‘Beneath This Burning Shoreline’, takes all this in, and tells us how it is, from the heart, the brain, the belly, and the dirt under their fingernails.
Cherry Ghost are songwriter/vocalist Simon Aldred, Jim Rhodes, Ben Parsons, Grenville Harrop and Phill Anderson.
In 2007, Cherry Ghost’s debut album, ‘Thirst for Romance’ revealed the potential of what this extraordinary group could do. Their widescreen, wondrous songs, like ‘Mathematics’ and ‘4am’, had already been showcased on Later With Jools Holland months before the album’s release, and then were played heavily on Radio 2 and 6 Music. The record got to no. 7 in the album charts, and its lead single ‘People Are The People’, won an Ivor Novello award for Best Contemporary Song in 2008.
But still Aldred wasn’t content. After all, these were songs he had written over the years, back when he was a tentative musician playing backrooms and tiny bars, and he had already set his sights on making the record he really wanted to. It would be less naïve and more adventurous, less studio-based and more about live performances, harnessing the incredible musicianship of his band members. There would be fewer overdubs and no extravagant solos, as Aldred was determined to ground his band’s music in honesty and humility. He also wanted to escape the curse of the mythical, industrial Northwest. Having travelled widely, and loving the writing of Cole Porter, Glenn Campbell and Bill Callahan more than geographical neighbours like Elbow or Richard Hawley, it was now time for Aldred to make everyone realise who he really was, and what Cherry Ghost were. It was time to uproot, look beyond, and march bravely on.
The songs were pouring out of him. Aldred thought of them like a collection of strange short stories, and spent days thinking about the characters they charted, and the elements of darkness that loomed within all of them. He created the “well groomed weekend brute” of ‘Kissing Strangers’, the man “whose face could launch a bare-knuckle fight” in ‘Barberini Square’, and shaped a story from a woman’s perspective in ‘Only A Mother’, exploring the blind optimism that exists in abusive relationships.
Then the band took a year to dutifully stitch all these songs together. They did so in a barn on a tiny farm south of Manchester, where they sat on mattresses as they played their instruments, and put their amps on toilet lids. They finished sessions in the early morning as the farmer headed out to milk the cows, and also heard footsteps above them at night. When they did, they remembered the German prisoner-of-war that someone had told them had lived there, who hung himself in the eaves.
New sounds and rhythms also roused their music. Krautrock rhythms and eerie strings underpinned ‘We Sleep On Stones’, a murder ballad about people who have lost loved ones at war, which Aldred wrote on a train from Prague to Berlin. On ‘A Month of Mornings (Oh Rolling River)’, the drums were arranged to sound like the movement of water, while ‘Luddite’ was based on breakbeats stuttering away in waltz time. ‘Diamond In The Grind’s’ atmospheric drum-loop was based on the hiss of an old tape as the spool runs out, while ‘TV on the Radio’ inspired its atmospheres.
‘My God Betrays’ and ‘The Night They Buried Sadie Clay’ also show how far Cherry Ghost have come, and how far they want to go. The first is a song about how people long to be tethered to faith, but how it can fail, with a middle-eight instrumental that evokes cries of mournful whales as hope slowly dies. The second, written by Aldred in Istanbul, even has a funeral march at its heart, led by soulful, tender brass, and its lyrics show the astonishing heights to which his imagery now soars: “Through lumbering limbs/ She’d track the paths of parting birds/ And as they rose/ Assembled in their pairs/ A donefor dream would meet their flight/ And deck the threadbare night/ With bows of blinding white”.
‘Beneath This Burning Shoreline’ is the ocean, the water, the terror, the tenderness; of life in all its messy, magical splendour. It is our thirst for romance in the raw, in the real. It is the sound of Cherry Ghost taking the spirit of their past, and ours, with them, and revealing their beauty in the brilliant present.