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Alex Rex – Mouthful of Earth

Alex Rex

Mouthful of Earth

Neolithic Recordings

2022

When we talk about words in relation to music, we normally have in mind lyrics that fit melodies, songs as structures built around the conventions of rhyme and rhythm and scansion. But it’s fair to say alex nelson has a more complex relationship with words than most musicians. It might be that drummers who sing are always going to do things a bit differently. It might be down to the fact that Neilson’s writing about music – his articles for The Wire, his generous, copious and often brilliant sleevenotes and press releases for fellow artists – is almost as prolific as his own musical output. Either way, when Neilson sings, it is often more than singing. As a lyricist, his frame of reference is uniquely wide, and his imagination is dark, strange and vivid, dramatic in the Brechtian sense. His singing by him encompasses everything from broken Dylanesque crooning to expressionist yelps via boozy gutter folk. He’ll often lapse into spoken or half-spoken delivery, a technique that predates the current fad for sprechgesang by a decade or two.

It comes as no surprise to learn that Neilson is a poet and an excellent one at that. Mouthful Of Earth is the first spoken-word Alex Rex album. It collects poems written before the pandemic and sets them to music that first saw the light of day in 2006 as Belsayer Time, an experimental drone album created by Neilson, Alastair Galbraith and Richard Youngs. The result is moving, brooding, darkly funny – all those things you associate with the songs of Alex Rex or the Trembling Bells, but more concentrated, more resonant.

‘It’s 4am’, the album opener Sorrow Makes Hope Soar Higher begins. In my experience, lots of poems begin at 4am. But things immediately get weirder – birds screaming, birds gouging confessions in the sky. ‘Epileptic birds with eyes of light.’ Hysterical starlings. It is a love poem of sorts, but the conventional symbolism of birds – their freedom, the joy of their singing – is flipped on its head with results that are as brutal as they are surreal.

This kind of bizarre and utterly original imagery drenches the whole album. On It Must Be Love – its title beyond irony – Neilson describes his future self as a foul-mouthed Jiminy Cricket and describes a personal apocalypse drenched in artificial colors. It’s something like David Berman’s Margarita’s At The Mall but more wounded, less resigned.

The music may have been composed or improvised years ago, but it is entirely relevant to the poems – the screams and wails and drones of Andromeda Chained To A Rock have a mythic, wild eeriness. Wastwater is backed by something between shimmer and clatter. Alcoholic’s Parabola – which begins like another of those bruised love poems – reclines on dissonant chimes and broken, wordless voices while Neilson examines two separate curves of his life from him, drinking and music. The misanthropic bird’s nest of Dog Person offers up a world-weary philosophy in little over a minute, the words seeming to take their cue from the unstable percussion.

Neilson is known for his collaborative spirit as much as for his experimental predilections and both come to the fore on Charity Shop Prophet. His old Trembling Bells bandmate Lavinia Blackwall sings a witchy, wordless backing vocal while Neilson’s own free-jazz drumming underpins a piece that juxtaposes historical and biblical reference with sexual desire. It’s a strange and heady concoction. This kind of fractured beauty can be found all over Mouthful Of Earth, even amongst the weeping sores and river-coloured piss and shitty jogging bottoms of Slight Return. The repeated ‘I love you’s and the reassurance that ‘it will all be over soon’ represent an almost decadent kind of hope: a gloating hope, an accelerated, Weimar kind of decadence. These poems bring with them the feeling that we are all dancing in our own ashes, but that doesn’t mean that we should stop dancing.

The list of songwriters who are also genuinely good poets is short enough to prove that there is a vast distinction between the two skills, despite their apparent similarities. To create an album that works both as a collection of poetry and a musical offering must be doubly difficult, but with Mouthful Of Earth, Neilson has pulled it off with endless originality and lusty lyricism.

Mouthful of Earth is out now. Order via Bandcamp: https://alexrex.bandcamp.com/album/mouthful-of-earth

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