In the modern world, These New Puritans are a bunch of pale, skinny, serious 20-somethings championed by NME and groomed by Dior, but it’s probable that they exist in another dimension altogether, free of pop culture excess. Initially, it would have been easy to dismiss TNP as merely another hype band who, by the skin of their teeth, clenched the tail end of British post-punk revival.
Beat Pyramid arrived in 2008 and by then revivals were saturated by a faceless copycat paradox. Their debut however, was shrouded in mystery. Cryptic intoning about numerology, language, colours, architecture, and The Occident / Orient bore little resemblance to anything their indie peers were doing.
Quite a few jumped upon the release of follow-up, Hidden, a staggering artistic leap into the unknown: Neo-classical spliced with dubstep and dancehall, and every other 21st century obscurity. Beat Pyramid did not completely renounce that all-to-familiar Joy Division / Gang of Four sound, but it did foreshadow the change These New Puritans were about to embark upon. All the while, they were becoming more austere, bending music history, with main man Jack Barnett citing 16th century composer William Byrd as an influence. Indeed, there is an ancient, medieval quality to the band: Barnett donning chain mail during live shows, propulsive drumming (as in how a Neolithic war tribe might have played), references to King Arthur, and an unashamed romantic fascination with their historic homeland, Essex.
Field of Reeds, their third album, is evocative of the Essex landscape not just through lyricism, but the traditional instrumentation employed. The terrain of Essex being flat and marshy, and largely uncultivated: “There is something about the melancholy and brutality of that place in our music,” said Barnett. But even through this depicted fallen land, Field of Reeds is pristine. Imagery of islands, rivers, beaches, and oceans tie in with human relationships. Drums are scarcely heard, as are synthesizers. These New Puritans instead offer a deep, absorbing album, one less preoccupied in war and more in human reflection, creating an altogether more personal and intimate album than Hidden.
Barnett, after declaring never to sing again, makes a welcome return, his hushed voice being the only recognisable element in the band’s ever-maturing sound. Even when his vocals are absent or replaced by Portugal’s Elisa Rodrigues, his presence can be felt. The serene opener, “This Guy’s In Love With You” shows a softness in Barnett’s composition, with two lonely piano chords giving way to warm brass and an unusual field recording of a female singer half-recalling fragments of a song. It is perhaps the most poignant ever written by the band, a sad expression on the nature of time and memory.
Yet beyond this and the upbeat classical pop of current lead single, “Fragment Two,” lies a quiet pervading menace, moving like a serpent that slithers between classical dynamics, and darkness and light. “The Light In Your Name” and “V (Island Song)” evoke heavy, gun-metal clouds, weather-beaten heaths, and brown, oily beaches – the former especially portraying the violence and calm of such environments with barely contained tension and out-of-nowhere tonal shifts. It’s mad, and Field of Reeds is further evidence of Jack Barnett’s mad genius (he insisted on taking a whole day breaking glass for a two second long finished product and recording a Ferris hawk for “Organ Eternal”).
Aside from Barnett’s namedrops – Steve Reich, Stephen Sondheim, and Kurt Weill – comparisons to this album are not easy to draw. At times it recalls Tubular Bells, while at its most subdued moments, Laughing Stock-era Talk Talk. Certainly, These New Puritans’ musical evolution has followed in a similar vein to that band in that they have dispelled any sense of time and place. “Dream,” in which Elisa Rodrigues leads a capella, sounds almost like a carol or lullaby before drifting into slightly more sinister territory. The closing title track is faithful to an ancient Gregorian chant, and a reassuring epilogue that still carries Hidden’s pagan, apocalyptic mood. Barnett addresses: “You asked if the islands would float away / if the stars run through me like a river, like the air / I said “yes”. It’s an ending of note-perfect uncertainty, and the addressed is never revealed: a loved one? Spirit? This has always been TNP’s game – nothing must ever be assumed.
A few years ago Jack Barnett’s lofty ambitions would have elicited a few sniggers, but presented with Field of Reeds, one could never have foreseen such a monumental achievement. The success of Hidden and the direction These New Puritans had taken on that album could have meant more of the same, but here they manage to make something unfamiliar and thrilling, with added sincerity. Quiet, diligent, and touching – this could very well be These New Puritans’ masterwork.