Review: U2, Songs of Experience

As the biggest band in the world (or, at least according to Rolling Stone, one of the top 100 and the only one to make it through more than three decades without changing their lineup), U2’s latest album, Songs of Experience has been attracting a great deal of attention. So far, so unsurprising. What is more surprising is that the latest addition to their corpus should be named after a William Blake collection – a trick they’ve pulled off not once, but twice, with Songs of Experience the follow-up to their 2014 album, Songs of Innocence.

The reviews are, frankly somewhat mixed: perhaps the most damning has been Kitty Empire’s two-star summation of SoE as “an insipid try-hard” (ouch), while Amanda Petrusich argues that the band has “run out of things to say” and, in one of my favourite reviews, Calum Marsh observes that the band is struggling to make itself relevant in the second decade of the twenty-first century; against these more negative pieces, David Fricke argues that, while flawed in parts, it is their most powerful album in a long while and Alexis Petridis noted it as album of the week.

Of course, what the world has been waiting for is a middle-aged academic to weigh in the subject, so to ensure that no more breath is baited I’ll offer my brief summary of the albu. As a musical addition to a band’s output that has not, frankly, much interested me since their 1987 The Joshua Tree, I was genuinely surprised to actually rather enjoy the album, certainly much more than Songs of Innocence which was the insipid contribution to their back catalogue. There are the inevitable jangly guitars, signature mark of David Howell Evans (because, even thirty years later, I can’t bring myself to call him the Edge, as much as anything because I’m never one hundred percent sure where the capitalisation starts…). Actually, U2, while being far too middle of the road for my tastes deserve much greater respect than any sarcastic knocks from a literary scholar and so I shall simply observe that Songs of Experience, while amusingly pompous at times (this is, after all, U2) is certainly much more listenable than recent work.

What this review will focus on instead is how significant the title choice is. Songs of Experience, named, of course, after William Blake’s 1794 famous collection of verse, was meant to be released more quickly after Songs of Innocence as a companion piece but apparently, due to the progress of the 2016 election and a near-death experience on the part of Bono (I’m genuinely resisting all the tasteless jokes for a moment). Personally, I suspect the almost-unanimous hostility that greered SoI was another reason to pause: convincing Tim Cook to release the album to every owner of an iOS device was business genius but a bit of a PR disaster – it’s been a long time since Apple was synonymous with the phrase “think different” and the sheer arrogance of assuming a few hundred million iPhone and iPad owners wanted to listen to your Blake-inspired warblings was astonishing.

By contrast, Songs of Experience is genuinely enjoyable at times if somewhat more maudlin and still obviously the work of a band that believes it will change the world. This is clear on tracks such as “Lights of Home” (available in two versions on the album), which is actually one of my favourite tracks but with its final chorus – ominously repeating a motif from SoI‘s “Iris (Hold Me Close)” – enters full on pseudo counter-culture territory as it invites listeners to “free yourself to be yourself”. A proverb of hell this is not. It’s almost as though punk never happened and, at that precise moment, reminds me of Primal Scream’s great song, “Kill All Hippies.” Nevertheless, the album often displays a greater degree of self-knowledge that is genuinely touching, as on “You’re The Best Thing About Me” when Bono sings “Shooting off my mouth / That’s another great thing about me”. How many of his critics have thought that about him?

Petrusich’s review is one of the most thoughtful but, for reasons I’ll come on to later, also one of the most inappropriately academic. A couple of paragraphs in, she endeavours to explain the significance of Blake which, of course, invites all kinds of generalisations and inadvertent falsehoods which is often the case in the format of a music review. As Blake himself wrote, “to generalise is to be an idiot; to particularise is the alone distinction of merit”. Her overall point, however, is correct – if also somewhat obvious: to future generations, it is Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience that will be remarked worthy of the distinction of merit. She also points out that while U2’s Songs of Innocence did seem to capture some of the essence of childhood and adolescence, their Songs of Experience seems to miss much of the point. On the whole, I agree: the experience of U2’s songs is generally a more self-concerned – if sometimes genuinely touching – mark of introspection, the obsession with the authors’ own mortalities, rather than Blake’s genuinely angry cries against social injustice.

This is not to say that U2 have not read Blake. Originally, I had intended to offer a more detailed analysis of many of the individual tracks from the album, but the blog In Search of Rock Gods has already done this and I recommend that you read this for a detailed song-by-song analysis in the post “Hopeful Symmetry: A Blakeian Look at U2’s Songs Of Experience“. I do not completely agree with all of the author’s observations – I think there is a tendency to find similarities where some may be much more tenuous, nonetheless the following is an interesting example:

“Infant Sorrow”: My mother groaned, my father wept: Into the dangerous world I lept, helpless, naked, piping loud.
“Lights of Home”: I was born from a screaming sound.
“The Showman”: Baby’s crying because it’s born to sing.

This demonstrates both a strength and weakness: the line from “Lights of Home” is genuinely compelling and an interesting allusion, but that from “The Showman” is far too generic to be convincing. However, the ultimate argument of “Hopeful Symmetry”, and one which I found illuminating, is that both of U2’s albums work by reflecting and pairing each other. Thus, for example, “Love Is All We Have Left” (SoE) pairs with “Iris” (SoI) and “American Soul” (SoE) with “Volcano” (SoI). This point is intelligently made, and the repetitions of phrases and motifs suggest that this was clearly intended by the band, leading to a more dialectical approach to the two collections that would fit with a Blakean approach to the two contraries of the human soul.

And yet, ultimately it is Songs of Experience itself that fails to convince me that U2 have clearly absorbed the darker energies of Blake’s poetry. Like the earlier collection of poetry, there is a lyric that deals with an iconic place: for Blake, it is London – for U2, it is America. Both are ideas as much as physical locations, and both deal with the darker manifestations of those places – Trump’s USA and the England of William Pitt. First of all, Blake’s “London”:

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

This poem has been known to generations of children (and rightly so) and I know from my experience of teaching those school children when they come to university it is a poem that leaves a lasting impresion on them (even if they are not always sure why). Contrast this to U2’s “American Soul”:

Blessed are the bullies
For one day they will have to stand up to themselves
Blessed are the liars
For the truth can be awkward

It’s not a place
This country is to me a sound
Of drum and bass
You close your eyes to look around

Look around, look around
Look around, it’s a sound
Look around, look around
It’s a sound

It’s not a place
This country is to me a thought
That offers grace
For every welcome that is sought

You are rock and roll
You and I are rock and roll
You are rock and roll
Came here looking for American soul

It’s not a place
This is a dream the whole world owns
The pilgrim’s face
It had your heart to call her home

Call her home, Brother John
So every mother’s weepin’
Dream on, Brother John
In your dreams you get me sleepin’

You are rock and roll
You and I are rock and roll
You are rock and roll
Came here looking for American soul

American, American

Put your hands in the air
Hold on the sky
Could be too late, but we still gotta try
There’s a moment in our life where a soul can die
And the person in a country when you believe the lie
The lie (the lie, the lie)
There’s a promise in the heart of every good dream
It’s a call to action, not to fantasy
The end of a dream, the start of what’s real
Let it be unity, let it be community
For refugees like you and me
A country to receive us
Will you be our sanctuary
Refu-Jesus

You are rock and roll
You and I are rock and roll
You are rock and roll
Came here looking for American soul

You are rock and roll
You and I are rock and roll
You are rock and roll
Came here looking for American soul

American soul, American soul

I do rather like this track on the album – it has delightfully dirty, soulful backing guitars that give it a raw power – but as a modern counterpoint to Blake’s denunciation of the corruption of a country ruined by war it falls far short. Blake’s poetry is terse, burning with rage against religion, war, child slavery and child prostitution (the latter not abstractions in eighteenth-century London). By contrast, U2’s lyrics are… worthy. I admire the sentiment, but it is sentimental. The heart of Blake’s nameless narrator is filled with wrath, for Blake knew that the tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction, yet U2 have hitched themselves up to the latter, preaching to the converted with weak puns (“Refu-Jesus”? Seriously?) rather than denouncing the evils that men do the children they should protect. A liberal piss fit because Trump was elected will never match the Jeremiad of Blake’s righteous wrath. It is one thing I have always loved about him – while the religious right frequently lays claim to the power of the words of the King James Version, it is that radical antinomian who denounces God, priest and king who more accurately captures the violent cadences of the Bible.

In the end, for me U2’s Songs of Experience is too weak, too well-meaning to fully adopt the mantle of Blake’s poetry. I do actually rather like the album (although much of this week I’ve been listening repeatedly to Martha Redbone’s Garden of Love as a truly wonderful Blakean adaptation), but ultimately the band is concerned with love conquering all. Although Blake frequently observed that experience was not the end, that “organized innocence” provided a fruitful marriage of the two contrary states of the soul, he was also a great enough poet to allow evil to speak with a clear voice, the better that it could be understood and rejected. This is the prophetic voice of the original Songs of Experience, one that contains – in poems such as “The Sick Rose”, “London” and, of course, “The Tyger” – some of the clearest delineations of evil ever to have been written and which Blake allows to stand alone at this point, without the intervention of a loving god to rescue us. Blake’ trusts his readers to understand within their own souls the pathways they must follow. After all, when he asks “Did he who make the lamb make thee?” he does not rush to provide an answer, for the assertion that love conquers all is meaningless for those whose innocence is taken away. In one of the darkest poems of Songs of Experience, Blake grimly observes:

Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody Poor:
And Mercy no more could be,
If all were as happy as we

Against such clear-sighted vision, Bono’s assertion that “Love is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way”, for all its invocation of near-death experiences, will always remain too simplistic, too glib by comparison.

From the Collection: Martha Redbone Roots Project, The Garden of Love

While the internet and social media are abuzz with chatter about U2’s Songs of Experience (which I do intend to review soon), I thought I would return in the meantime to one of my personal favourites in terms of musical interpretations of Blake, The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake by the Martha Redbone Roots Project.

Born in Kentucky, with roots throughout the Appalachians, Redbone has long explored Native American music alongside other traditions such as soul, gospel and English folk music. Her first albums, Home of the Brave (2001) and Skintalk (2004), attracted very favourable critical reviews, and there is a very good interview with Tom Paul at Soul Tracks which outlines some of her early influences, whether George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic, Quincy Jones or Icelandic R&B. As Paul observes, while some of her influences are clear the sound is all her own.

The Garden of Love was released in 2012, her fourth studio album and combined these influences to create a truly wonderful musical setting for Blake’s poetry. As with her earlier albums, reviews were rightly enthusiastic and are perhaps best summed up by a headline from National Public Radio: “Blake’s Poems, Reborn As Bluesy Folk Tunes, Burn Bright”. Of the songs on the album, her single, “The Fly”, attracted most attention.

“Bluesy folk tunes” is too broad a phrase. What is particularly remarkable about Redbone’s music is how the Appalachian roots of her music come to the fore, for example “On Another’s Sorrow”, but also how other genres recreate Blake’s poetry, such as the more melancholy English traditions of “I Heard an Angel Singing” or gospel on “I Rose Up At the Dawn of Day”. What is particularly wonderful is that while the words are those of Blake (and thus, of course, immensely appealing to me) the songs really are Redbone’s: not only does Blake serve as an inspiration to her to create in her own image, but – like all great adaptations of Blake – it leads me to reconsider his work in new ways.

A remarkable example of this is “I Rose Up At the Dawn of Day”, in which Redbone is supported by a choir on one of the most joyful recordings of Blake’s poetry ever. To my astonishment, when I first heard it I didn’t even realise that this was William Blake, initially mistaking it for a more traditional gospel source such as Charles Tindley or Andrae Crouch. However, the words are very much those of Blake, taken from his Notebook:

I rose up at the dawn of day
Get thee away get thee away
Prayst thou for Riches away away
This is the Throne of Mammon grey

Said I this sure is very odd
I took it to be the Throne of God
For every Thing besides I have
It is only for Riches that I can crave

I have Mental Joy & Mental Health
And Mental Friends & Mental wealth
Ive a Wife I love & that loves me
Ive all But Riches Bodily

I am in Gods presence night & day
And he never turns his face away
The accuser of sins by my side does stand
And he holds my money bag in his hand

For my worldly things God makes him pay
And hed pay for more if to him I would pray
And so you may do the worst you can do
Be assurd Mr Devil I wont pray to you

Then If for Riches I must not Pray
God knows I little of Prayers need say
So as a Church is known by its Steeple
If I pray it must be for other People

He says if I do not worship him for a God
I shall eat coarser food & go worse shod
So as I dont value such things as these
You must do Mr Devil just as God please (E481)

There is not a single song on this album that is not worth listening to repeatedly and it is, to repeat, one of my favourite albums based on Blake’s work. Selecting one track from the album is invidious and, as such, I will simply end here with the opening title track which is a doorway to the rest of the album:

 

Martha Redbone Roots Project, The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake, CD, Blackfeet Productions Ltd., 2012.

Blakespotting: News about William Blake, November 2017

As the month that marked the 260th anniversary of the birth of William Blake, November began with a bang rather than a whimper as U2 announced on the very first day that they would release a new album, Songs of Experience, in December as well as embark on a new North American tour, Innocence + Experience in May 2018. If there remained any doubt as to the source of U2’s inspiration, publicity materials made it quite clear who was being referenced in their work:

Songs of Experience is the companion release to 2014’s ‘Songs of Innocence’, the two titles drawing inspiration from a collection of poems, Songs of Innocence and Experience, by the 18th century English mystic and poet William Blake. Produced by Jacknife Lee and Ryan Tedder, with Steve Lillywhite, Andy Barlow and Jolyon Thomas, the album features a cover image by Anton Corbijn of band-members’ teenage children Eli Hewson and Sian Evans.

Preceding the album launch in early December, largely positive reviews began to appear. Variety declared it the band’s best since How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, Alexis Petridis at The Guardian called it a “fantastic return to form” and Rolling Stone thought it a mature and thoughtful album.

One of the biggest bands releasing an album based on Blake’s 1794 illuminated book would be enough by itself in most months, but the start of November also saw a programme by another major name, the author Philip Pullman whose collection of essays, Daemon Voices, was serialised for Radio 4. The final episode, “Soft Beulah’s Night – William Blake and Vision”, was broadcast at the end of October and was available throughout early November, part of a series of events to celebration of the publication of La Belle Sauvage on October 19, volume one of The Book of Dust, the prequel to the trilogy His Dark Materials.

Aside from U2, November saw a number of other Blakean-themed musical events and releases. CityPages.com included an interview with Thomas Abban (looking for all the world like a young Marc Bolan), who listed William Blake among his influences on his 2017 debut album, A Sheik’s Legacy. Another debut album, Mercy Works by Toronto post-punk band Casper Skulls, also draws upon Blake’s work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, for the track “What’s That Good For” and was reviewed at NowToronto.com. Longstanding Blake aficionado, Michael Horovitz, played with the William Blake Klezmatrix Band at the Royal Albert Hall on November 16 in anticipation of a new spoken word album, Lyrical Soulmates. DIY Magazine carried a review of Nabihah Iqbal’s latest tracks, ‘Eternal Passion’ and ‘Zone 1 To 6000’, which are influenced by the poetry of Blake and Matthew Arnold, and the new video by another post-punk band, The Soft Moon, for a track “It Kills” from the forthcoming album Sacred Bones, takes inspiration from Blake’s quote,  “Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained”. Finally in terms of music, Martha Redbone was performing from her album, The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake, in East Tennessee on November 30.

There were several Blake-related book reviews: Langdon Hammer’s piece on a new edition of Hart Crane’s long poem, The Bridge, drew attention to the considerable influence of Blake on Crane, most notably in his essay on Stieglitz, whereby he saw Stieglitz’s photography as capable of expressing Blake’s notion that “We are led to believe a lie / When we see with not through the eye.” Similarly, The Sydney Morning HeraldMaurice Sendak carried a charming piece on , reminding readers of his significance as a Blake collector. And lest we forget, apparently Dan Brown’s new novel, Origin, includes a Blakean reference as a necessary clue. One of my particular favourites from the month was a piece by Zen Pencils, a reworking of Blake’s ‘A Poison Tree’ as a tale of school sports envy.

Regarding exhibitions and events, The National Trust announced that it would be holding an exhibition, William Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion, at Petworth House, Sussex, from 13 January to March 25. From 1800 to 1803, Blake lived in nearby Felpham (where he began work on Milton and Jerusalem, his great, prophetic books), and the exhibition will bring together works from Tate, the British Museum and the V&A to complement works acquired by George Wyndham, third Earl of Egremont, from Blake, most famously the Vision of the Last Judgement. Tickets are currently available at £12 for National Trust members, £18 for the general public. The Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair, which opened on November 10, had as its highlights two original etchings from Blake’s Songs of Innocence, provided by the great Blake collector, John Windle, who last year opened a gallery devoted entirely to Blake in San Francisco. There was also a new performance of Jez Butterworth’s play, Jerusalem at the Abbey Theatre, St Albans, starring Marlon Gill.

November also saw a series of events and news coming out of the Block Museum, Northwestern University, Illinois, as a prelude to their exhibition, William Blake and the Age of Aquarius and the accompanying book of the same name, published October 17. The first event in November was a lecture by Michael Philips, ‘Printing in the Infernal Method’: William Blake’s ‘Illuminated Printing’, which took place on November 3 and explained Blake’s invention of relief etching in the contexts of eighteenth-century printmaking. By the end of the month, reviews of the exhibition were beginning to appear, such as this one from The Huffington Post, and others by the Evanston Magazine. and Buzzflash.com.

From the Collection: Blake’s Anniversary

William Blake was born on this day in 1757, 260 years ago, at 28 Broad Street in Soho. His first important biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, describes his birth as follows:

William Blake, the most spiritual of artists, a mystic poet and painter, who lived to be a contemporary of Cobbett and Sir Walter Scott, was born 28th November, 1757, the year of Canova’s birth, two years after Stothard and Flaxman; while Chatterton, a boy of five, was still sauntering about the winding streets of antique Bristol. Born amid the gloom of a London November, at 28 Broad Street, Carnaby Market, Golden Square (market now extinct), he was christened on the 11th December – one in a batch of six – from Grinling Gibbons’ ornate font in Wren’s noble Palladian church of St. James’s. He was the son of James and Catherine Blake, the second child in a family of four.

Ten years ago, to mark the 250th anniversary, Royal Mail released a commemorative stamp as part of its “Great Britain, Our Island’s History” series of collections, pictured here. The image is taken from the portrait painted by Thomas Phillips in 1807 and which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

The accompanying card, which provides a brief biography, concludes:

He believed passionately in racial and sexual equality. Several of his poems and paintings express a notion of universal humanity. He retained an active interest in social and political events all his life, but was often forced to resort to cloaking social idealism and political statements in Protestant mystical allegory. On the day he died, Blake worked relentlessly, eventually ceasing and turning to his wife, who was in tears by his bedside. Seeing her, Blake is said to have cried, ‘Stay Kate! Keep just as you are – I will draw your portrait – for you have ever been an angel to me.’ Having completed this portrait, he laid down his tools and began to sing hymns and verses and at six that evening, after promising his wife he would be always with her, he died.

Blake’s life, if not his art, was one of wonderful simplicity and has always been as much an inspiration to me as his painting and poetry. I have never desired his poverty and his struggle, but that he was able to keep faith with Catherine and his visions is something that speaks to me now, some 260 years later after this great man was born.

From the Collection: A Paradise of English Poetry and Lyra Sacra

These two anthologies, A Paradise of English Poetry and Lyra Sacra, were edited in the late nineteenth century by the clergyman and poet, Henry Charles Beeching (1859-1919). Beeching was educated at Balliol College, Oxford, and began work in a Liverpool parish after taking orders in 1882; he published his first collection, Love in Idleness, in 1883.

As with many Victorians in the decades following publication of Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake, Beeching took an interest in Blake’s poetry, and included selections in his anthology A Paradise of English Poetry, published in 1893. From the 1870s onwards, Blake’s poetry became increasingly popular and his lyrics in particular started to appear in a number of collections. This particular anthology reprints Blake’s stanzas from Milton, ‘And did those feet’, as the second poem in his section on ‘Patriotism’, while the first comprises a compilation of extracts from Shakespeare:

O England, model to thy inward greatness,
Like little body with a mighty heart!

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune.

This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror.
Come the three corners of the world in arms
And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true. (A Paradise of English Poetry, p.204)

Cobbled together from extracts taken from the Prologue to Act 2 of Henry V, the final comments of Phillip the Bastard from Act V, scene 7 of the History of King John and, unsurprisingly, John of Gaunt’s “scepter’d isle” speech from Richard II, this looks to all intents and purposes the kind of set piece that Shakespeare should have delivered but never actually did. Indeed, Beeching’s alterations deliberately falsify Gaunt’s speech delivered just before a death that he welcomes, replacing his sad observation that “England, that was wont to conquer others,/Hath made a shameful conquest of itself” (Richard II, 2.1, ll.66-7) with the vainglorious assertion that instead “England never did, nor never shall,/Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror” (King John, 5.7, ll.118-9). That Beeching was obviously affected by Blake’s verses is also indicated by his inclusion of the poem in his next collection, Lyra Sacra: A Book of Religious Verse, which appeared in print two years later and included the stanzas in the following form:

The New Jerusalem
By William Blake (1757–1827)

I

ENGLAND, awake! awake! awake!
Jerusalem thy sister calls!
Why wilt thou sleep the sleep of death,
And close her from thy ancient walls?

Thy hills and valleys felt her feet
Gently upon their bosoms move:
Thy gates beheld sweet Zion’s ways;
Then was a time of joy and love.

And now the time returns again:
Our souls exult; and London’s towers
Receive the Lamb of God to dwell
In England’s green and pleasant bowers.

II

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountain green?
And was the Holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pasture seen?

And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear: O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land. (Lyra Sacra, p.199)

Alongside some epigrams and lines from Auguries of Innocence, these two poems – taken from Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion and Milton A Poem – are most interesting because they represent the first time the title ‘Jerusalem’ is applied to Blake’s most famous stanzas. As an active editor of Milton’s works (indeed, Geoffrey Keynes published a version of Beeching’s edition of Paradise Lost with the addition of Blake’s illustrations in 1926 for the Nonesuch Press), Beeching was probably attracted to Blake’s prophetic book because of the Romantic’s clear invocation of the epic poet. As with most Victorian editors, Beeching took considerable liberties with Blake’s work, polishing it as he saw fit to accord more agreeably with Victorian tastes. Yet while he was critical of Blake’s ideas and the style of the prophetic books, nonetheless he admired the lyric poetry enough to reproduce a considerable quantity of it during his publishing career. More importantly, his slightly cavalier attitude to what the original author intended was to have immensely important consequences for the later reception of the stanzas beginning ‘And did those feet’: by conflating lines from Milton with those from Jerusalem, Beeching felt justified in renaming the poem ‘The New Jerusalem’, paving the way for the much more famous title by which the poem would be known in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Proving a direct link to Parry is problematic, but the indirect connection is compelling. Beeching was related by marriage to Robert Bridges, the poet laureate whose publication of The Spirit of Man provided Parry with the text for his setting, and Henry Walford Davies, Parry’s former pupil and the conductor for the first ever performance in 1916 of what would become known as ‘Jerusalem’ set both ‘And did those feet’ and the lines from Shakespeare to music in 1907/8. Furthermore, Parry’s final composition before his death – entitled simply ‘England’ – took as its lyrics the same extracts from Shakespeare which Beeching had placed alongside the stanzas from Milton. As such, A Paradise of English Poetry and Lyra Sacra remain two important, if forgotten, texts in the genealogy of what would become the most famous setting of Blake’s verse to music.

From the Collection: The Fall double single box set – Jerusalem and Big New Prinz

Mark E. Smith of The Fall has long been a fan of William Blake (you can listen to or read a transcript of some of my earlier reflections on what Blake meant to him), and one of the clearest expressions of his fascination with the poet was a version of ‘Jerusalem’ that he recorded in 1988 for the album I am Kurious Oranj.

I am Kurious Oranj, an album ostensibly based on the 300th anniversary of William of Orange’s accession to the English throne, is as wonderfully bizarre as it sounds. Released in late October, 1988, the pictured box set came out a week or so later, on 7 November, and was a beautiful, limited edition release comprising two singles as well as a promo postcard for the album.

The above links give a more extended reading of my own reactions to Smith’s version (which I love), and here I’m simply drawing attention to the beautiful nature of the singles as an assemblage of objects – something we have very much lost in the age of the digital download.

The song(s) reached 59 in the main UK charts – some way behind The Fall’s biggest hits, covers of ‘There’s a Ghost in My House’ (30) and ‘Victoria’ (35), although much better than most Fall singles, which tend to languish in the nineties. One of the hardest working men in (indie) showbiz, Smith has nearly always been an acquired taste, though I’ve always loved The Fall. You can listen to their version of ‘Jerusalem’ in the YouTube clip below.

The Fall – Jerusalem/Big New Prinz
Beggars Banquet – FALL 2B; 2 x vinyl, 7″, 45 rpm
Box set, limited edition, numbered; 07 Nov 1988

From the Collection: Urizen, the Dark God

Urizen, from Todd McFarlane’s Spawn series

This is something very different from my last post, although for various reasons it’s a favourite of mine. If Joel Peter Witkin’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience represents a high-culture response to Blake (in price at least, although some critics might object to that tag applied to the content of his photography), this plastic figurine from McFarlane’s Toys is very much the downmarket aspect of merchandising. I picked up this particular object for about £5 from eBay, but I do absolutely love it. I very much doubt that when Blake first presented his tyrant deity, Urizen, in the Lambeth prophecy America in the early 1790s, he thought it would be reincarnated as a plastic figurine aimed at kids – well, more accurately comic book geeks. I rather hope that he would have appreciated the thought.

I have a notion to do some work on Blake and comics in the coming months, and so have begun to collect various titles that reference Blake in some shape or form. Everyone, but everyone who knows something about Blake and comics knows about Blake and Alan Moore, the creator of V for Vendetta and Watchmen, who most recently wrote an epic novel, Jerusalem, that takes its title from the hymn and illuminated book by Blake. There are many, many others who lay claim to Blake as an inspiration, however, and one of the most inventive is Todd McFarlane.

McFarlane, most famous for his work on the Spider-Man series, is a Canadian-American comic book writer who has also produced material for some of the best-known and best-loved figures from comics in recent years, including the Incredible Hulk and Batman among others. My own interest in McFarlane, however, was piqued by his series Spawn, some of which I remember reading in the 1990s when they were first released by Imagine comics, but which I had long forgotten about.

Urizen, McFarlane Toys

Urizen first appears as a character in issue 93 (March 2000), and is identified as the “Dark God”, an epithet apparently chosen for its deliberate contrast to Blake’s original identification of this Zoa as the “prince of Light” (David Erdman, The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake, p.307). Indeed, a descendant of William Blake, “Granny Blake”, also appears in the Spawn series – but I’ll return to Urizen and Granny Blake at a later date once I’ve collected the relevant issues of the comic.

In the meantime, this figurine stands apart as a fascinating piece of Blakeana for its own sake. McFarlane Toys, the manufacturer of this trinket, is a spin-off subsidiary of Todd McFarlane Productions and was formed in 1994 (originally as Todd’s Toys, though it changed its name a year later to avoid confusion with, of all things, Barbie’s younger brother). The company has received some criticism for the gory nature of some of its creations, but any company that works with the late, great H. R. Giger to bring his monstrous creations to life (or plastic) is fine by me. Since its formation, McFarlane Toys has gone on to become a business with a turnover of some $9 million and makes toys for acts as diverse as The Simpsons and the rock group KISS.

There is no date given for this particular figurine, but would clearly have been after 2000 when Urizen made his debut in the Spawn comics, and is listed as part of the Spawn series 2. Rearing upwards in a stance similar to his pose in the first comic, Urizen takes on the form of some hellish demon, a complete antithesis (which, as far as I can tell, is deliberate) to the Blakean original. I would hope that rather than spinning in his grave, Blake would have been pleased to see his Deistic nemesis revived in popular culture – and perhaps have half an eye on future royalty payments.

From the Collection: Joel Peter Witkin’s Songs of Innocence and Experience

Joel Peter Witkin, Songs of Innocence and Experience
Joel Peter Witkin, Songs of Innocence and Experience

Published in 2004 by the photography art publisher, 21st Century Editions, Songs of Innocence and Experience is the most extensive homage by the photographer Joel Peter Witkin to the work of William Blake. Two separate editions were published (aside from artist’s and hors commerce copies): a deluxe edition, containing an original, signed platinum print by the artist, which was limited to 26 copies, and the regular (though still lavish) edition pictured here, which numbered 915 copies.

Born in 1939, Witkin’s art has frequently attracted controversy because of his use of corpses and dismembered body parts, as well as physically deformed, transsexual or BDSM-active individuals. Personally, I’ve been a fan of Witkin’s work since the 1990s (when I first encountered it in the retrospective catalogue published by Scalo in 1995), but his photography is often unpopular and frequently considered exploitative (especially, for example, his images of dead children and foetuses taken in Mexico where laxer laws allowed him to capture such photos). Rather like another Blake afficionado, the Surrealist Georges Bataille, Witkin’s relations to Blake operate on the margins of the diabolical rather than the angelic, depicting extreme depictions of human figures.

Strictly speaking, I find little visual consonance between the work of Witkin and Blake, the latter being so thoroughly influenced by the neo-classical movement of the late eighteenth century (for all his protestations that he hated classicism) that he seems at first to bear little relationship to the tortured, mannered expressionism of Witkin that has its roots, perhaps, in distortions of El Greco (and indeed, in 2016 Witkin announced that he was planning a series of photographs based on El Greco). To many of Blake’s contemporaries, however, the “human form divine” outlined in so many of his paintings was seen by them as precisely tortured, mannered and expressionistic: Robert Hunt described his work as that of “an unfortunate lunatic” and thought that his painting of the ancient Britons looked like sides of “hung beef”. As such, Witkin’s still lives of dismembered parts may share much more with Blake’s illustrations of the body than I am initially willing to concede…

Nonetheless, it is clear to see Witkin’s attraction to Blake operating in at least one other way: Witkin has frequently sought to present his curious subjects in the form of religious tableaux, and there is an intensity to the best of his work that invokes the original meaning of the word “sacred”, as that which is consecrated or set apart – devoted to divine use and destined for destruction in sacrifice, taboo. Again, this particular reading of the divine may have more in common with Bataille’s accursed share, though it is significant that Bataille began his book,  La Part Maudite, with an invocation of Blake: “the sexual act is in time what the tiger is in space”. Ever since Algernon Swinburne’s apotheosis of Blake as the arch rebel, the Romantic artist and poet has clearly been one who was knowingly of the devil’s party for some of those inspired by his work – one whose work is a marriage of heaven and hell.

Joel Peter Witkin - La Bête
Joel Peter Witkin – La Bête

For the most part, Songs of Innocence and Experience brings together previous photographs by Witkin rather than new work, in ways that is frequently not especially appropriate while in other ways the connection is both fortuitous and illuminating. In an article published in 2010, I was somewhat critical of the fact that Witkin was far more attracted to experience rather than innocence in my opinion, but the image reproduced above – La Bête – is one of my particular favourites from the book: numerous scholars have been somewhat disappointed with Blake’s original illustration to his poem “The Tyger”, and Witkin’s accompanying photograph is one of the wittiest commentaries that I have ever seen. A reconstruction of Albrecht Dürer’s 1515 Rhinoceros, Witkin’s photo suggests that just as Dürer had never seen a Rhino so Blake, quite clearly, had never been witness to a tiger. It is playful, amusing and delightful.

While some of Witkin’s images annoy me – not necessarily for their content, but rather because the juxtaposition with Blake’s poems is jarring (such as genital torture alongside “The Chimney Sweeper”) – the entire book is a truly beautiful artefact, even in the standard form. Many of his images would be better suited to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (or perhaps the darker nights of The Four Zoas), yet if the work sometimes is too redolent of experience rather than innocence, it also suggests some of the reasons why Blake continues to fascinate in so many ways in the twenty-first century.

 

Songs of Innocene & Experience, photographs by Joel-Peter Witkin, poems by William Blake with an Introduction by John Wood.
Edition: 915 numbered copies, plus 26 lettered copies. 62 plates printed in off-set on Arches paper. 13 1/4 x 12 1/4 inches

 

Blakespotting: August 2016

Unless you’re part of the Donald Trump race relations team, August was probably a quiet month for you. Certainly in the world of Blake news that was the case, even though this is the month that marks Blake’s death in 1827. Despite that fact, any major events seem to be waiting for a much bigger release in September – so much so that the beginning of August was dominated by actor Kit Harington, more famous for his role of “you know nothing” Jon Snow, promoting a new car – the Infiniti Q60 – with words from Blake’s “The Tyger”. You’ll have to wait until 2017 to see whether the Q60 really rivals the BMW 4 Series, but in the meantime you can enjoy Harington’s transfer of poetic appeal to the 400 hp machine in the clip below (and the full version does have nearly the entire poem, which is kind of impressive).

The 12 August marked the anniversary of Blake’s death and, as is traditional, the Blake Society marked his life at the memorial in Bunhill Fields. There will probably be a much more ecstatic celebration of his life in September as part of the Big Blake Project. I’ll be covering the forthcoming “Blakefest” in Sussex in more detail next month which – fingers crossed – will be a major event (and, hopefully, a recurring one). In August, however, it looked as though it was running into some difficulties as the ticketed event – which hopes to attract at least 5,000 visitors – failed to get financial backing from the local council. Another big event which I’ll be returning to in October, but which began to attract a lot of attention online, is the prospective opening of what has been billed as the “world’s largest William Blake gallery“, to be launched by John Windle in San Francisco. What that will actually mean remains to be determined, but Windle’s enthusiasm for Blake is certainly not in doubt.

Rick Pushinsky published his response to Blake’s eighteenth-century collection of poems in August. Songs of Innocence and of Experience: A Study Guide, is a series of beautiful photographs of found and fabricated sculptures, interpreted through the prism of Blake’s imagination. Several of them can be seen at www.pushinsky.com/project/songs-of-innocence/. Another very promising release was Michael Hughes’ novel, The Countenance Divine which, according to Paraic O’Donnell in The Guardian, “is a debut of high ambition that marks the arrival of a considerable talent” in its interweaving of narratives involving a blind Milton in 1666, Jack the Ripper and the Whitechapel murders of 1888, and Blake labouring over his illuminated books in 1790.

Musically, the artist P.J. Sauerteig (aka Slow Dakota) gave a fascinating interview in which he indicated the considerable influence of Blake on his work – not surprising for an album where the opening track deals with a man who submits his song to an angel, only to see it not selected in a contest organised by God. With that lead in, The Ascension of Slow Dakota is now firmly on my must-hear list. U2 has confirmed that the follow up to Songs of Innocence (perhaps one of the most disliked albums of all time because Apple forced iOS users to download it to their devices) will be Songs of Experience. There are few details as yet, other than the new album will be accompanied by a world tour in 2017.

Blakespotting: July 2016

Ronald Searle: image from A Grain of Sand, 1964.
Ronald Searle: image from A Grain of Sand, 1964.

The monthly roundup of sightings of William Blake in the media.

July began with a delightful tribute to drawings created by Ronald Searle for a movie for UNICEF, entitled A Grain of Sand. The first part of the film includes a narration of Blake’s Auguries of Innocence over Searle’s animation, while the second part features live footage depicting the day in the life of a Tunisian boy. The film doesn’t seem to be available (at least in any easily accessible format) but was made, according to the BFI database, by the UN in 1960 to illustrate the problems of overpopulation and the care of children throughout the world.

In Derry, Northern Ireland, award-winning artist Aislinn Cassidy staged an exhibition of her work, “The Sick Rose“, at the Playhouse Theatre. A science graduate and teacher, Cassidy draws parallels between the diffusion of colour in various substances – including the living form of roses – and draws on the religious, political and social symbolism of Blake’s poem. The exhibition was shown in mid-July at the Playhouse and is due to go on to the North West Regional College in September. Another artist showing work inspired by Blake was Emre Namyeter, whose various lightboxes on display in Istanbul drew upon the famous quotation from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite.”

One of my favourite snippets from July was that the half brother of Barack Obama, Mark Obama Ndesandjo, has released an album entitled Reflections on William Blake. Ndesandjo, who lives in Shenzen, China, and is an accomplished pianist, has made two other albums as well as written a more famous memoir in which he accused Obama Snr of abuse. On his web site, he describes the source of inspiration for his album on Blake as a visit to the Tate, but I have yet to track copies of it down.

Staying with the musical theme, a concert at Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, included a performance of Louis Andriessen’s Ahania Weeping as part of an evening of music devoted to Jeffrey Dinsmore, a musician who worked with Andriessen and others before his unexpected death in 2014. Meanwhile, in preparation for the Blakefest due to take place in Sussex in September, the music critic Chris Roberts traced some of Blake’s influences on popular music, while U2 confirmed a new 2017 tour and album entitled Songs of Experience.

During July, the photographer Rick Pushinsky published a collectionSongs of Innocence, inspired by the illuminated book of the same name, interweaving photos of found objects with fragments of Blake’s verse. The end of the month saw a one-off performance of Luke Welch’s play, Waiting for Robert, in Bournemouth as a follow up to the Big Blake project that took place this year. This is another one to track down, though according to the synopsis it centres around the struggles of Catherine Blake and William’s patron John [sic] Hayley, chasing the artist for a commission as William is haunted by the spectre of his Ghost of a Flea, which he believes only his dead brother can banish.