A Heart & Two Stars
uke Sutherland is a renaissance man. Gay, black, Scottish, singer, guitarist, flutist, trumpeter, songwriter, wearer of good glasses and marvellous hair, quietly acclaimed novelist (his third book, Venus As A Boy, follows on the release of this album by only a month), formerly of Long Fin Killie and Bows and now working with Germans Stefan Schneider and Volker Bertelmann under the name Music A.M.; it’s fair to say that in the decade since Long Fin Killie were formed he has achieved and created more than most, even if a breakthrough into the mainstream popular conscious has yet to be forthcoming.
A Heart And Two Stars is the sixth album Sutherland has been heavily involved with in the last ten years, after three with Long Fin Killie and two as/with Bows, and while its subdued hues of electronic post rock don’t suggest it will be the record to break Sutherland into more profitable and high-profile commercial ground, it is yet another example of the man’s shining talent and exquisite taste in collaborators. Music A.M. sees Stefan Schneider providing a wealth of quietly plangent basslines, while Volker Bertelmann paints a succession of delicate backdrops using whatever comes to hand; synths, keys, drum machines, samples, electronic manipulation. All that’s left for Sutherland to do is add touches of guitar and stretch his lucid whisper across the songs.
And so A Heart And Two Stars opens with the slipping guitars and groundless beats of “Blackflash”, hauling post rock out of the arid dynamic wasteland it had been in danger of falling into. “Big Wheel” starts like an android’s nursery rhyme, a naïve melody picked out by a lovelorn machine, and the instrumental “Route 66” is like a completely electronic Four Tet, despite the presence of a real live human being playing a real live (electric) guitar making it cybernetic rather than robotic in nature. “Air Miami” has meandering pulses that sound like a melted xylophone, and which are subsumed inside a slowly rising and subtly rousing (artificial) string movement.
Lyrically, as ever, Sutherland is inspired, his personal, honest and abstracted ruminations dealing with realist romance as well as his race, sexuality and the inherent problems of aligning the two. On the romantic front there is “Dynamite”, in which faltering, hesitant electrical burs and transports represent a lambent lassitude, only for Sutherland’s voice to transform that laziness into lustfulness with a mere pause in phrasing – “I wish I was in bed again / with you”. “Wonder Woman” would appear to curse the limitations of his gender, but is largely safe and non-confrontational. It’s “Ecstasy” that best deals with the ultimate sin that Sutherland has ‘committed’; that of being both black and homosexual – “all this homeboy wants is to be a girl” he murmurs. “Girls can wear their disco slips when they like / but that’s just fucking heartbreak if you’re a guy / what else can I say? / got niggers bitching / gonna blow me away” – the word ‘fucking’ enunciated with such whispered precision that every letter becomes a barb to those who’ve ever told Sutherland that he cannot be who he is.
The understated emotion and textures of A Heart And Two Stars (is Sutherland the heart, are Schneider and Bertelmann the stars?) doesn’t quite reach the sublime frequencies of Cassidy, Bows’ last album, where occasional forays into guitar-led noise added a sense of brutalising masculinity to the ambient dream pop which had occasionally been over-cooked by Long Fin Killie’s urges to maximalism, but it is nonetheless close to being a wonderful record. Imagine the Postal Service if at least one of the collaborators had been a bona fide genius rather than just a talented journeyman, if it had been less obsessed with winsome first-flush romanticism and had more experience of the darker side of life on the outside of ‘normal’. Quite how Luke Sutherland will express himself next is unclear, but on past form it will be worth listening to. Or reading.