To tell the story of Field of Reeds is to tell the story of the Thames Estuary, a once mighty landscape made slave to urbanisation, now a repository of London’s waste. It’s at once sprawling yet abstract, a site of rejuvenation and degeneration – all of which is masterfully articulated in These New Puritans’ third record, the Estuary’s malleability made manifest in music.
Jack Barnett and co.’s mysterious fascination with the area has haunted their career for some time. On their 2010 masterpiece Hidden, Barnett sings: “Secret recordings were made in the marsh,” never once providing full explanation of its significance. It’s apt then, that Barnett accompanied the release of its follow up with the following: “With the first album especially, there was a bit of a gap between me and the music. With the last album that gap closed a lot. With this one it has disappeared.”
Yet its most partisan followers will find little shared sonic territory between Field of Reeds and its predecessors. Trading Taiko drums and post-punk electronics for delicate swirls of clarinet, french horn and basso profundo vocals, These New Puritans’ latest is as rich as it is challenging. Given structure in the form of a loose triptych, the album’s journey assumes three stages concerning the Estuary: the utopic untamed, the dystopic ravaged, and a kind of reconciliation between the two.
Barnett weaves these narratives with an almost obsessive perfectionism. His voice, for instance, works as a formless, dead-eyed murmur with which he deliberately sounds out words that need not require intonation or annunciation. It’s as if he’s reaching, yet never grasping, at the truth. His counterpoint, jazz and fado singer Elisa Rodrigues, becomes married to the instrumentation, a harmonic guide through the marsh. Make no mistake, this is still an album of high drama, however its instances are marked by more subtle moves – the gradual change in George Barnett’s drum pattern in ‘The Light in Your Name’ and the use of magnetic resonator piano in ‘Organ Eternal’ are both standout moments.
TNP’s latest is certainly the quietest work in their oeuvre, but for those who invest their time it is also their most rewarding. “There is something there” Barnett explains in ‘Fragment Two’. And in that moment we’re given confirmation of what Field of Reeds communicates as a whole: that the junkyard wasteland of the Estuary and the fragments of our consciousness are one and the same.