hen they emerged on Static Caravan in 2005, Tunng was unfairly snagged by a genre generally attributed to the rabid British press: folktronica. The timing was bad. They were lumped in with the Psapps, Múms, and Four Tets of the world, a white-washing that accounted only for a shared taste in acoustic sounds and chipped beats. But following their debut, Mother’s Daughter and Other Songs, the band issued a sophomore record that blurred the genre’s lines enough to show Tunng was stuck in their own headspace. Comments of the Inner Chorus was hazy and impressionistic, cozying Sam Genders’ cloudy, image-based storytelling in Mike Lindsay’s rusty-nailed folk pastiche. It held tracks that sounded on the surface like pillowy love songs (“Woodcut,” “Jenny Again”) but that when taken in a few times, revealed rough Victorian tales of death and abandon.
Now, on their third record and first for Thrill Jockey, Tunng is six members deep, having added former Chapterhouse drummer Ashley Bates (as a guitarist). But, really, it’s still the Mike Lindsay and Sam Genders show. Lindsay’s folksy bedfitting and deft, pastoral use of electronics are as room-full as they’ve ever been, bumping out clapboard beats and barrel-roll basslines without sacrificing the duo’s wooded hush. The duo round out their heady creations with film samples, clattering woodblocks, piano, dulcimer, plenty of windy static, and even a beat (on “Arms”) supposedly stitched from tape of a bonfire. They still have that Chaucer round-the-fire sense to their songs, a thousand shadowed tales to play out your travels. But on their first two albums, Tunng often reveled in the smear of their sounds—and the atmosphere they created—which tended to distract from the albums’ front-to-back movement. With Good Arrows, not only is Lindsay’s comfort with the soundboard more evident, but the songs seem to interact in concert for the first time. In fact, a quick look at the song titles nods to this new cohesion. Each is a blunt, everyday token—from “Soup” and “Spoons” to “String” and “Cans.”
But beneath the band’s intoxicating take on English folk lies something far more bleak and lacking shape. As I alluded to earlier, Tunng has always played at dichotomies—perhaps the band’s most gorgeous musical creation to date, “Jenny Again,” was a dreary, well-hidden murder tale. They have a way of lulling you into loving a song whose lyrical bedding contrasts directly with its ‘pretty’, disarming sound. And yet never before has this duality been so troubling, so full of conflict and density. Themes of mortality and death, the body incarnate, stretch out atop children’s choirs and ascendant string sections. Innards, spines, bones, guts, and teeth mark the soil; it’s strange, bewildering turf for an album that on first-listen, you imagine playing at green summer picnics.
Nowhere are these lines drawn more clearly than on the album’s core initial-third. “Bricks” is about as anthemic as Tunng has ever sounded, with tinkling bells and a billowy beat like an early Beta Band recording. Genders’ tale, however, is murky—a series of disconnected images about lizard skins, pretty girls staking their thoughts on nature, and a series of bold colors and surrealistic wordplay. There’s nothing as consciously shady about the song as many here, but you get the feeling Genders is dancing around some foul truth. He seems to employ false smiles to keep his company happy, and this makes it kind of hair-raising. Or maybe it’s the line about the cold eggs. Such a visceral image that, a plate of cold eggs.
Over a gently picked acoustic guitar and muffled tom-beat, “Hands” is more direct—an outsider’s tale full of trite daytime stuff (“he stands with his head in his hands/in the corridor in A & E”) as well as its nighttime extra-stuff (“we sing as we all fall down/we sing as the sky collapses/and make what we can of this”). The song tickles away in sounds of reverie, but even Genders patient voice can’t shake its hint at the elusive. “Bullets” is easily the most strident song Tunng has ever created. Well, musically. After a haunting vocal sample ushers in a rocksome tea-time beat, Genders sings “our blood and guts are out/we spread our bones across the table at night” against Tin Pan Alley piano. As with so much of Good Arrows, you come to sense only to lose it again, as Genders spoils almost every narrative line with peculiar phrasings and clouded imagery.
Somehow, in this confusion, Good Arrows is still a series of beautiful songs for that part of us all that just wants to stay in bed all day. In fact, with these smudged narratives, Genders is offering you an out: simply let me flow through you and pretty is all it has to be. It can still be picnic music. Just don’t listen too closely.