King Creosote should abdicate from the Scottish pop throne and become a salesman. “I'm the weakest link on this record,” says the cosmic DIY swashbuckler of his new LP, Astronaut Meets Appleman. The follow-up to 2014’s “peculiarly beautiful and affecting” (Q) From Scotland With Love, it's an exquisite album from one of our best-loved voices, replete with a chamber-rock rabble and then some: harps and bagpipes come as standard, as does silence.
“Sometimes it doesn’t sound like a KC record at all,” continues the man also known as Fife's Kenny Anderson, coining another promotional slogan. “It sounds far too good.”
Returning after the stellar success of his heavenly soundtrack, From Scotland With Love – not to mention KC and Jon Hopkins' 2011 Mercury-shortlisted Diamond Mine – might seem a daunting mission to some. But the East Neuk (via space) cowboy touches down with accordions blazing, freewheeling stealth curveballs, and a wry commercial disregard.
The album opens with a punk-baiting double-header thanks to ‘You Just Want’ – seven-and-a-half minutes of hymnal drone-pop whose touchstones are the art of patience, scenes of mild bondage and Venus (in Furs). That's followed by a lilting bagpipe-techno odyssey with a Welsh title. “It’s called ‘Melin Wynt’,” KC explains. “It’s an anti-wind turbine song, from a place called windmill. There are no windmills there.”
This sense of place, disorientation and absence (in space, time, nature, hearts) underpins Astronaut Meets Appleman – most literally, perhaps, in the silence that unfolds amidst crestfallen lullaby ‘Rules of Engagement’ (rest easy, Diamond Mine lovers...) Or, as he intones on philharmonic lament 'Faux Call', “it's the silence that somehow says it all”.
The album title, Anderson suggests, explores the tension (and harmony) between tradition and technology – between analogue and digital philosophies – and also invokes a feeling, he says, of “being caught between heaven and earth”. (Listening to his music has a similar effect.)
“I always feel I’m reaching for something, but I never get there,” KC muses, and this is reflected in the album's geography, which is more far-flung than usual. It was variously recorded at Analogue Catalogue in Ireland's County Down, An Tobar on the Isle of Mull, and Glasgow's Chem19 studios (HQ of long-time ally Paul Savage, who co-produced the LP with KC). “Yeah, there's a dislocation there – I wanted to get out of the usual places,” Anderson nods.
“I also wanted to push myself songwriting-wise, so I went in with hardly anything and had to wing it,” he continues. “I wanted to try and flip the clock all the way back to sound like a younger me – or a less cynical me. In the past, I've been fixated on twisting and wrenching every line, but here I've let that go a bit, and I hope that lets you concentrate more on the music; on what’s going on around it.”
The KC idiom – equal parts geometry, self-deprecation, cosmic wonder and seafaring poetry – is still intact, as is his knack for a killer couplet (see drive-pop calypso ‘Love Life’: Her jealous accusations know no bounds / Scarlett Johansson was never in my house”). But there is a renewed sense of space and letting the music breathe (lead, even) on the album – all the better to showcase a stunning ensemble cast that includes Catriona McKay (harp), Mairearad Green (bagpipes), Gordon Maclean (double bass), Hannah Fisher (violin, vocals), Sorren Maclean (guitar, vocals) and Pete Harvey (cello), alongside KC's regular rock diviners, and his baby daughter Louie Wren (on ambient reverie, 'Peter Rabbit Tea').
“It's a busking set, but in a studio,” says KC, which proves he can time-travel too: such an approach takes us right back to the start, to when Anderson was a bluegrass busker; when he played in the Skuobhie Dubh Orchestra, and then Khartoum Heroes; before he launched his DIY imprint, Fence, and found a fitting moniker to put on the label (hence, King Creosote). Sixty-odd albums since (conservative guess), he remains a busker at heart: “'You Just Want' is very bluegrass, it's like a gig. Not in style, but in the idea of giving everyone a solo, and then bringing them all back. It’s not in a hurry to go anywhere.”
There are second chances, too. As Diamond Mine excavated some of KC's earliest songs ('Bubble' and 'Your Own Spell' were decades old), and From Scotland With Love dug into the past ('Something To Believe In' was originally 2001's 'A Prairie Tale'; 'My Favourite Girl' was a restored gem), so too does Astronaut Meets Appleman, thanks to 'Faux Call', which was last spotted as the b-side to 2007's 'You've No Clue Do You', and finds sublime orchestral new life here.
Twenty-one years since Anderson issued his first King Creosote record, he's caught between heaven and earth: always reaching, not quite getting there. “I have travelled far to douse the astral fire in my heart,” he sings on dazzling 'Betelguese', a string-drawn shanty for a bright star, delineated by short months, long nights, winter triangles, the magnetic north, setting sail, and coasting on (by) the space in-between.
Some things never change.
He's still upsetting apple-carts and dealing with the fallout (on 'Wake Up To This' – “you served an ace, revenge in spades”). He's still howling at planets and comets on 'Surface', which finds him at all sea and in the dark; taking off and going to ground – appraising love and life, the moon, the stars; tide tables, bagpipe scores, zeros and ones; mathematics, ticking clocks and the beat of our hearts. He always counts.
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