Herbert's grand take on Brexit is by turns affecting, irritating and overreaching.
The State Between Us is two years in the making. Herbert began the project as the UK government triggered Article 50, and thus the process of withdrawal from the EU, in March 2017. He recorded and performed all over Europe, apparently collaborating with over 1000 artists. The guests include the singers Rahel Debebe-Dessalegne and Arto Lindsay, the instrumentalists Enrico Rava and Byron Wallen, and lyrics from the famed playwright Caryl Churchill. The resulting record imagines a journey across the UK, with field recordings captured at key locations. Even by the standards of Herbert, an artist who has written albums based on a naked body, a bomb falling on Libya and the life of a pig, the concept is grand and highly ambitious. (And controversial, according to the Daily Mail.)
Similarly, the number of questions The State Between Us raises is pretty mind-bending. How can a single album, even one that includes creative input from more than 1000 people, capture a national identity? What does it say that the vehicle for such an attempt is a big band, a type of musical ensemble that reached its peak in the first half of the 20th century? And how can a political process as fractious and complicated as Brexit be mined for musical expression?
The album finds the most success in its attitude of openness. Around the time of the Daily Mail furore, Herbert responded by saying the project aimed to give shape to the UK's future relationship with Europe: "I believe [it] should be founded on respect, curiosity, creativity, empathy, collaboration and love." This is easy to see in the album's creation process but it also translates to the music. The State Between Us is short on direct messages, but on "You're Welcome Here," a hymn to open borders fuelled by quivering strings and piano, Debebe-Dessalegne sings, "If a man in uniform tells you that you don't conform, you're welcome here." Her voice also soars on "Be Still," another poignant highlight, on which she sings, "We need you to be here."
Taken from one angle, The State Between Us could simply be absorbed as a soothing balm for Brexit's tension and division. Plenty here falls into a comforting, nostalgic tenor that evokes the idea—rightly or wrongly—that we were more united before. A recording from Glenn Miller, one of America's kings of big band, appears on "Moonlight Serenade" along with a modern recording of a WWII-era plane. A sepia-tinted smokiness hangs over this and other tracks like "Run It Down" and "Fish And Chips," even when they're punctured with abstract political missives.
Writers and reviewers down the years have consistently noted the tension between Herbert's bold concepts and the resulting listening experience. Put another way, just because a record's liner notes are interesting doesn't mean the music is any good. In this respect, The State Between Us is a big improvement on the often frustrating There's Me And There's You, the previous album from The Matthew Herbert Big Band. The arrangements here are striking and considered, the field recordings give a coherent sense of place, and the vocal performances often deliver.
Some poor decisions do, however, let the album down. "The Tower" responds to the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in London. It begins gradually with a single piano note and a recording of a silent march, one of the most affecting images in the wake of the fire, but then develops into a kind of peppy adult contemporary number that feels completely out of step with the tragedy and its aftermath. "Where's Home" deals with the NHS, that most British of subjects. A nurse walks through a hospital ward as the track's arrangement swells—and then, suddenly, we're dropped into an irritating jazz-house thumper. Repurposing hateful online comments directed at the Brexit Big Band as song lyrics ("Feedback") is quite a smart idea in theory. But in practice it comes off as a liberal artist looking down upon the uneducated masses, an attitude that played a large role in creating this whole mess to begin with.
As we all in the UK relate to Brexit individually, so too do we relate to the idea of Britishness differently. But it's difficult to know what, exactly, Herbert has to say on this. Are the evocations of tropes like fish and chips, the seaside and Morris dancing a comment on our warped relationship with the past? Or just lazy signifiers as part of a concept that greatly overreaches? I felt compelled this week to go back and listen to Dean Blunt's 2016 album as Babyfather, BBF Hosted By DJ Escrow, which made an even more ambiguous statement on the idea of Britishness, but captured something deep and elusive. The State Between Us does, at times, attain a depth of its own, particularly when it's dealing in the sadness of separation Brexit engenders in roughly half of the population. But at other points it just seems to be saying, "Ooh, aren't we quirky?!"
Fri / 29 Mar 2019
01. A Devotion Upon Emergent Occasions
03. You're Welcome Here
04. Run It Down
05. The Tower
06. An A-Z Of Endangered Animals
08. Moonlight Serenade
09. Be Still
10. The Words
11. The Special Relationship
12. Where's Home
13. Fish And Chips
14. Backstop (Newbury To Strabane)
16. Women Of England