Sweet Billy Pilgrim
We Just Did What Happened And No One Came
t's hard enough capturing your reaction to music you really adore; time only makes it worse. If you've been living with an album for months before you actually sit down to write about it there's a feeling of pressure, an obscured obligation to both do right by something that's given you so much pleasure and to prove (to yourself, if no-one else) that all that time you've spent has been productive. Those are the reviews that often stretch into dozens of revisions, multiple complete overhauls, pages and pages of text generated while the writer beats their head against the ineffability of love. Eventually the temptation looms to just wrestle the subject to the ground and beat the hell out of it, to submit whatever is left and stop trying to analyze rather than enjoy. The results are always unsatisfying; it seems somehow unfair to the writer that mediocre music can result in better criticism than what really reaches us.
So I'm not even going to try. Sweet Billy Pilgrim's debut album has swallowed me whole; I can no more explain my affection for this music than I could account for how I sleep. Five of the nine tracks I've had around since March; “Stars Spill Out Of Cups” quickly established itself as one of my favourite songs in all of creation, and it hasn't budged since. The miraculous, floating middle section of that track is the closest that Sweet Billy Pilgrim come to the kind of heightened wordless ecstasy that initially attracted me, but the pealing, fragile chorus is just as blissful and more indicative of the sound of this album as a whole. “Atlantis” and “No Jesus In Here” are Sunday-afternoon hangover music, painstakingly gentle, like Low without the guilt or distortions (and also without those otherworldly harmonies, but you can't have everything). It's like being woken with a kiss, both softly surprising and comfortably familiar. “God In The Details” and “Experience” veer towards the sinister; the latter marries odd smears of sound to a lyrical bent that reminds me of Jack Nicholson going insane at the Overlook, whereas the former starts out like a sweeter Tom Waits singing in a quiet bar before shifting into a round for demonic choirboys and subdued digital percussion.
With so much dear to me already in We Just Did What Happened And No One Came, the new tracks could have been total art-wank or hideous “tuff” “rawk” and this would still warrant a B; what's here instead argues strongly for this being one of the best records released in 2005. “In The Water I Am Beautiful” is the most striking addition, and not just for the sudden, singular interruption of late-90s distorted rock guitar into the proceedings. It lacks the delicate touch of the rest of these songs but has instead a much poppier, more conventional feel. It shows one path Sweet Billy Pilgrim could take, one that would veer closer to bands like Elbow and Doves than the almost static drift of the loveliest moments here. I have it on good authority that it's a transitional song, though; the closing duo of “Black Flag” and “Atropina” are much more forward looking. “Black Flag” in particular, with its shuffling drum loop and soft organ, builds towards the sort of low key crescendo that too many bands would overdo; thankfully, Sweet Billy Pilgrim seem to have the knack of leaving the lily ungilded. It's just a voice and some quiet sounds, but you're never left wishing they would do more.
But it's “Atropina” that's the most striking. This is no ponderous art-rock band; plenty of the other songs show a keen grasp of melody and flow, and for all the quietude on display you can still belt out parts of this album in the shower. “Atropina” sheds the straightforwardness that even songs like the gracefully squelchy “Deshonrado” have for a piano intro that is quickly submerged in gently pulsing ambience; the vocals, no longer bound to verse-chorus-verse, ebb out of hearing, eventually replaced with an old recording of a preacher. It doesn’t feel out of place, though. Instead, it helps end We Just Did What Happened And No One Came on a sublime note.
One of the hallmarks of great art is the feeling of being tricked into believing that its ingredients (whatever they may be) are all art really needs, that all else is superfluous. They're not, of course, but whenever this record ends I can't quite bring myself to listen to anything else for a while. It's the kind of trick that inspires serious, life-long devotion, and so far mine has been amply rewarded.
Reviewed by: Ian Mathers
Reviewed on: 2005-11-02