When the William Blakes released their first album, Wayne Coyne, in 2008, it received excellent reviews in Denmark, the band’s home land, but was largely missed by the rest of the world or, when noticed, viewed with the typical disdain reserved by Anglo-American critics, bloggers, and the rest for Euro-pop. A couple of reviewers commented on the archness of the band’s name, along with the fact that their album cover consisted of Thomas Phillips’s 1807 portrait of Blake over which was pasted the head of Wayne Coyne, lead singer and guitarist for The Flaming Lips. Well, at least Coyne appreciated the tribute as recorded in this video interview, and of course it is precisely the band’s chutzpah in selecting Blake’s name and portrait that first attracted me.
The influence of Coyne remains very much in evidence on their 2009 follow-up, Dear Unknown Friend, as well as that of Talking Heads and 1980s wunderkind Roland Orzabal from Tears for Fears. For me, unfortunately, that is not an entirely good thing: I always preferred my eighties synth pop to either have a rougher edge (early Ministry) or be more stripped down and intellectual (Kraftwerk). Likewise, I have always wanted to like the Flaming Lips ever since I bought Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots purely on the whim of its marvellous title, but found myself unable to listen happily to Coyne’s voice. I love to read about him (for example “The Parking Lot Experiments”), but sitting in the same room as an entire Flaming Lips album is never something I manage with ease.
Nonetheless, having indicated that I am a person who literally will buy records on the basis of something as superficial as the title and cover art, Dear Unknown Friend is something of a hidden delight. Pretentious the band may be (their self-launched record label, Speed Of Sound, describes lead singer, Kristian Leth, as “a published poet and TV persona in Denmark”), but that has little influence on my own appreciation. They still have a long way to go before they even approach the vast ego of Jim Morrison, something which never prevented The Doors actually making great music once in a while.
The William Blakes comprise Kristian on vocals, with Bo Rande on horn and keyboard, and twins Fridolin and Frederik Nordsø on drums and guitar. The reason for their name is an intriguing one, that “They took their name from the poet William Blake (1757 – 1827) because they share his desire for a spiritual upheaval,” even if it is best to pass over the assertion “This is music made without fear” with as little comment as possible. In general, however, the lush production, effortless harmonies and catchy pop tunes of Dear Unknown Friend provide moments of genuine pleasure, with only the occasional duff note – literally in the case of Leth’s voice when he tries a little too hard to imitate Coyne, metaphorically with lyrics such as “My government is killing every hope for me” on opening track “The Thing We All Believe In”: Leth’s sympathies are in the right place, but as political protest lines such as this trip over their own feet.
Elsewhere, however, the William Blakes are much more deft – a particular favourite of mine being “It Looked Like Us” which reminded me of of a missing track from Julian Cope’s Jehovahkill: humane, amusing, but also an every-so-slightly disturbing apocalyptic vision that appears immediately vivid and yet somehow uncertain at the same time. What exactly it is that looks like us is never clear and yet I see many things when listening to this song. In addition, the idiosyncracies of Leth’s voice are perfect here, shifting to mild paranoia in a way that arouses the listener’s sympathy rather than grates. “Contact” is also impressive in its ambition, avoiding prog-rock overkill to evoke rather elements of Pink Floyd or even Space Oddity-era David Bowie before launching into an incredibly uplifting final chorus.
How much, then, do the William Blakes invoke their namesake? They avoid anything as crass as direct references – so fans of the original should be warned that this is no direct engagement with the Romantic artist in the style of Jah Wobble. However, there is something of an attitude that reminds me of Cope’s appropriation of the great man as a presiding spirit who wishes to pursue heaven and hell, angels and devils in the quotidian. The visionary qualities of Dear Unknown Friend never approach the originality of Blake (nor Julian Cope, for that matter), but the final feeling after listening to the album is that the William Blakes have found a great deal of fun in this series of memorable fancies as well as moments of brilliance in tacks such as “It Looked Like Us”.
You can purchase Dear Unknown Friend from CDON.com.
A number of new exhibitions and releases for 2010 demonstrate the continuing influence of William Blake in a variety of arts and formats.
One of the biggest events for the new year is the Chris Ofili exhibition at Tate Britain, but Blake is also present in the work of a number of other artists whose work has recently gone on display.
The Spanish conceptualist sculptor, Jaume Plensa, who in 1996 created Blake in Gateshead, a laser installation for the Baltic Centre of Contemporary Art, recently unveiled a new collection at the Nasher Sculpture Center. One piece, Twenty-nine Palms, is a curtain of stainless steel letters that spell out passages from some of Plensa’s favourite poets, including Blake as well as Charles Baudelaire and Emily Dickinson. The exhibition, Jaume Plensa: Genus and Species, runs until May 2.
At the Dulwich Picture Gallery, a retrospective of the work of Paul Nash shows how the landscapes created by the artist betweeen 1911 and 1946 were influenced by Blake as well as Samuel Palmer, Nash seeking to forge his own idiosyncratic symbolic language in the style of the Romantic artist. Paul Nash: The Elements is open between February 10 and May 9. It is also possible to see some of Blake’s own work at the Picture of Us? Identity in British Art exhibition that is currently on at the Graves Gallery in Sheffield.
Beyond the visual arts, Blake has had a role to play in a number of new musical releases. The country singer John Goodspeed’s new album, A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C), compares Blake to Muddy Waters, while the third album by Midlake, The Courage of Others, cites Blake as a poetic influence. That influence is more than passing for the Danish group The William Blakes, who have released two albums and are becoming increasingly popular in Scandinavia where they are currently on tour.
One extremely significant event is Jez Butterworth’s new play, Jerusalem, currently showing at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London after its transfer from the Royal Court. Jerusalem deals with often-neglected, alternative forms of Englishness, and stars Mark Rylance as a drug-addled gipsy, Rooster Byron. Throughout the play, Blake is an important lodestone for the forgotten aspects of this often cynical green and pleasant land, and runs until April 24.
Perhaps the strangest influence of all, however, is the appearance of some of Blake’s visual ideas in the new game from Electronic Arts, Dante’s Inferno. Aiming to take gamers to Dante’s view of hell, a book of the game indicates clearly that Blake, along with Auguste Rodin and Gustave Doré, was one of the inspirations for the game design.