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Belbury Poly, "The Gone Away"

cover imageI have to admit that I have always been somewhat confounded by stated The Ghost Box aesthetic of "artists exploring the misremembered musical history of a parallel world," as I have little nostalgia for hazily remembered '60s and '70s children’s television and a limited passion for the vintage sci-fi sounds of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. In short, I had insufficient whimsy in my heart to properly appreciate anything that sounds like a retro-futurist alternate soundtrack for The Wicker Man. After fully immersing myself in this latest fairy-themed opus from label co-founder Jim Jupp, however, I am beginning to see the unique appeal of the willfully anachronistic collective. I am not sure if the changing world or my changing self ultimately led me to this point, but the idea of spending some time in a kitschy fever dream evocation of a cheaply constructed puppet world suddenly seems extremely appealing to me. Granted, The Gone Away still rubs me the wrong way during its more "vintage lounge music" moments, but it nevertheless feels both good and pure that Jupp is so single-mindedly focused on extracting genuine pathos from our weird, dated, and ostensibly ridiculous cultural memories.

Ghost Box

If I had any doubts about whether or not I was projecting my own preconceptions of this project onto The Gone Away, they were immediately erased by the kooky and hallucinatory promotional video made by Sean Reynard's alter-ego Quentin Smirhes.In fact, I may have even read too much seriousness into Jupp's intent, though the teasing ambiguity of Belbury Poly is admittedly part of the appeal: even when it seems silly, that silliness is invariably delivered with real heart and sincerity.Probably, anyway.Only Jupp himself knows for sure.In any case, The Gone Away is the project's seventh full-length, yet marks a return to Belbury Poly's roots in a way, as Jupp departs from his more collaborative recent endeavors for an entirely solo affair.The other salient detail is that the album is inspired by the older, darker side of fairy-based folklore.It would be a stretch to call The Gone Away a dark album though, as Jupp's cheery eccentricity proves to be irrepressible.A few pieces do, however, take on a more somber or shadowy tone.The biggest surprise in that regard is "Corner of the Eye," which initially sounds like a bleary homage to chamber music, but packs a wonderfully haunting and sophisticated central theme that sounds plucked from an impossibly cool scene in an imaginary espionage film.In fact, the entirety of The Gone Away feels like the soundtrack to an imaginary film, but one where the composer was a rather moody fellow with a macabre sense of humor and a propensity for disorienting shifts in tone.The overall effect is akin to watching a goofy and candy-colored stop-motion or puppet film that contains some unexpectedly poignant moments of contemplation as well as a low-level sense of mounting horror that is always threatening to curdle the idyll.Also, there is probably a tropical beach party, some pagan rituals, and a tender love story in the mix as well.

Needless to say, those vivid technicolor shifts in tone make The Gone Away quite a fascinating and oft-fun cavalcade of singular and surreal scenes.In fact, I like to imagine Jupp as an incredibly talented cabaret pianist who can effortlessly play nearly any request, but who has only four possible settings on his keyboard: "harpsichord," "cartoon tuba," "Giorgio Moroder," and "big, bloopy analog synthesizer."As a result, even the most straightforward melodies feel charmingly lurching, blurting, and unfamiliar, though Jupp does occasionally downplay his propensity for big melodies to take a stab at more understated and simmering fare.That side of Jupp's artistry is best illustrated by "ffarisees," which mostly sounds like Moroder covering a somewhat haunting medieval Christmas song, yet ultimately evolves into a dazzling final act of skittering synth arpeggios that calls to mind a fireworks display erupting in an Impressionist painting. The opposite end of the spectrum is exemplified by the bouncy, burbling, and bright melodies of "Fol-de-rol," which would completely destroy my sanity if it was stuck in my head for longer than five minutes.There is a lot of stylistic room between those two poles, however, and some of it is quite good.I am especially fond of "Magpie Lane" and "Copse," which are (of course) quite different from both each other and everything else on the album.In "Magpie Lane," for example, a bittersweetly lilting melody of blobby synth tones unfolds over a clicking melody that I can only presume was provided by a tap-dancing puppet (naturally, said puppet also has a jaw harp)."Copse," on the other hand, feels like the theme music for an epic showdown between a gallant knight and some kind of shambling extradimensional fiend.    

The inherent modesty and "loving homage" nature of this project precludes me from proclaiming that Jupp is a world-building iconoclast, but The Gone Away does have the feel of great outsider art.Whether or not it is fair to call the co-founder of an influential and beloved label an "outsider" is certainly up for debate, yet it is a challenge to imagine many other artists who are as far outside the zeitgeist as someone orchestrating an unholy and mind-melting collision of early electronic music, classic sci-fi kitsch, H.R. Pufnstuf, and dark folklore in 2020.Or who blurs the line between wholesome and demented so masterfully.No one can say that Jupp and his Ghost Box brethren lack vision.However, that vision would not amount to nearly as much if Jupp were not so skilled at executing it.Aside from his obvious talents for strong hooks, uncluttered arrangements, and tight songcraft, Jupp showcases a genius for something much harder to define on The Gone Away.Normally, I praise artists who skillfully combine disparate for their seamlessness, but Jupp deserves praise for his…uh…seamFULness instead, as he manages to imbue almost every piece with a clunky, self-consciously retro homespun charm.Whether or not that charm is enough to elevate this album from "endearingly strange and otherworldly" to "great" probably lies in how predisposed a given listener is towards classic BBC Radiophonic Workshop sounds, I suppose.In my case, my appreciation for the Workshop lies mostly in its historical importance, but The Gone Away's handful of highlights is delightful enough to make me wonder if I need to reevaluate that opinion.I also wonder if the real deal (Oram/Derbyshire aside) might now pale beside Jupp's inspired re-imaginings: The Gone Away is not so much like re-visiting a long-cancelled, half-remembered TV show as it is like discovering that your weird uncle built an elaborate diorama of the set in his garage and has doggedly continued the plot on his own ever since (with absolutely no dip in quality).

Samples can be found here.