Justin Mitchell’s album, The Garden Of Earthly Delights, is lovely: funny, quirky, jazzy, funky, surreal and avant-garde all at the same time. It’s like the soundtrack to a drive-in science-fiction zombie movie set in a haunted fairground parked up near Swalecliffe. And that’s just one of the tracks.
More than anything, it is a meditation on mortality and what it means to be bemusedly alive in this cockamamie world of ours. The first track is called Rapture for Rupert and is an ecstatic multilayered fanfare rising to an echoing crescendo. It sets the mood for the rest of the album.
The Rupert in question is Rupert Hayes, of course, Whitstable’s maverick artist who died on July 9 2018. He and Justin were good friends. Rupert’s old studio went up in flames recently, so it’s fitting that Justin’s tribute should be heard not long after that catastrophic event.
Although obviously informed by Rupert’s passing, there’s a joyous, life-affirming quality to the album, as if Justin is finding ways to stay optimistic despite the ever-present shadow of death.
Pigeons, the third track on the record, is an example of this. It’s a celebration of the mysterious ordinariness of the world. Musically it’s like a sound painting of what pigeons do when they are gathered, cooing on a rooftop. There’s a nodding quality to the rhythm, like a sonic representation of a pigeon’s movements. After a while the words of a poem are heard, read by Emily Firmin, Justin’s long-term partner in art at Total Pap, the papier-mache studio they run together. The words and the music combined create an evocation of the sight and sound of a band of pigeons scattering about, pecking for food.
Lines like “nodding raptors lost in rapture” and “bobbing lovebirds lost in games, clapping wings with self-applause” are precisely fitting for the theme.
At one point Emily laughs aloud, obviously delighted at the words she’s being asked to read.
You’ll be delighted too on hearing it.
The album continues like this. A Cautionary Tale, the fourth track, is like an allegory of the absurdity of our current world: “A dazzling fairground, lights all on, with spinning rides and tempting prizes…” with a mouse atop a unicorn getting his comeuppance.
This is something Justin does in his art. He creates characters that come alive. Both the mouse in A Cautionary Tale and the pigeons in the previous track have that quality. They come alive in the listening, as does the anonymous narrator in Requiem, with his dark observations about life told to a stranger he accosts in a bar, full of chilling ill-humour and grim pessimism:
“Love is dead, they say… A banquet laced with lies, that is eaten on the hoof.”
The tune sounds like something that Bernard Herrmann might have composed for a Hitchcock movie, and the track has all the looming threat of that misanthropic director’s classic period: Strangers on a Train meets Shadow of a Doubt round the back of the Bates Motel.
Hangman’s Holiday, is like a dance tune with death as its theme. Indeed, the video features a dancing skeleton or two. Nevertheless, the music is jaunty and the tone is upbeat.
Bang bang bang, Annie go get your gun, Even though there’s dark clouds, I can still see the sun. Can you feel the wind, can you feel the sun? Are you breathing planet air, Then you’re the lucky oneJustin Mitchell
I won’t go through all the tracks. Many of them are instrumentals with a cool jazz or funky feel. The title track is a reference to the 15th-century surrealist masterpiece by Meister Hieronymus Bosch, currently held in the Museo del Prado in Madrid. It’s a good title and tells you, in an oblique way, what the album is about.
The triptych painting shows you the Garden of Eden on one side and Hell on the other, with Life on Earth squeezed in between. Obviously the Garden of Earthly Delights is the planet we inhabit in our days of being alive.
That’s where we all are now, of course, at least for the time being.
I asked Justin what his musical process was: how he came to write this album. This is what he said:
“I start by playing around with ideas on the keyboard without consciously thinking about it too much and recording at the same time on a little eight-track digital recorder. I’ll develop an idea and start extending it. I might then start adding other ingredients. I’ll try not to overwork it or worry about the framework but concentrate on putting down a solid foundation. It could go in any direction, but it has to have plenty of things that I didn’t mean to do in it: that way I can listen to it in a more divorced way. Then I might leave that and start another idea, do the same, come back to previous ideas — always slowly building on it.
“I had no idea where each number would go on this album, but I was aware that they were all part of each other and that the common theme would make itself known in time. It’s my first solo musical project and, although it was very liberating, working by myself I have become aware of the limitations of doing things like this on your own — apart from the fact that there is quite simply a hell of a lot of things to consider in terms of artwork, technicalities of production and the practical side of things.
“The creative side I’ve tried to let happen by itself as much as possible, without worrying about what box to push it into. I did want it to sound broad and representative of the richness of life with its joy and its pain but, again, working on your own in a tiny room has it limitations, as I said. Instrumentation-wise, I would have really liked to have real drums and real bass, but in the end things are what they are — and we are just very lucky if we have something we look forward to getting stuck into when we wake up.”
The fact that Justin managed to get such an accomplished sound out of working on his own in a tiny seven-foot room stuffed with instruments makes you wonder what he might have achieved in a full-size studio with a real band at his disposal.
Musically, I hear echoes of Hugh Masekela and Robert Wyatt in here. I suspect this is probably because they are both, like Justin, trumpet players. Robert Wyatt probably has similar working methods, being confined to a studio in his home, and putting the music together mainly on his own.
The parallels with Robert Wyatt remind us that, as a member of Soft Machine, he was one of co-founders of that historically important musical form known as the Canterbury Scene. No doubt Robert would have visited Whitstable during his time here. Perhaps he even lived here for a while.
Here is what Wikipedia says about the scene: “In the very best Canterbury music … the musically silly and the musically serious are juxtaposed in an amusing and endearing way.”
Which describes Justin’s music to a tee.
I have no hesitation in recommending The Garden of Earthly Delights as a welcome addition to the Canterbury Scene corpus.
You can buy the album (and listen to the tracks) here: https://justinmitchell1.bandcamp.com/follow_me
Review of the album in the Morning Star: https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/c/justin-mitchell-garden-earthly-delights
Born in Eastbourne 1966. Grew up in and around Canterbury. Went to multiple schools. Played cornet with Canterbury Brass many years ago. Moved to Whitstable around 1986.
Some bands I did time with: Willys Jump Jive, Busheido, Dave Purdey Blues Band, The Happy Accidents, Nigel Hobbins, Samondi, Mampama, Trouser Trumpets, Benzego (Ben Mills ), Flaky Jake, Big Orange Head, Grumble Funk, Celso Paco, Foley’s Curious Brew, Chris wood, Dub Pistols. I’ve done lots of studio work and gigged for bands but notably made albums with The Happy Accidents (including a surround sound DVD), Nigel Hobbins, Samondi, Mampama, , Chris Wood and allegedly The Wailers.
Just been recording on Jim Leverton’s new project with Chris Wood this last week.
One half of Total Pap along with Emily Firmin. Created a stamp for Royal Mail in 1995.
Alive and Kicking in Whitstable 2020.
You can hear Justin on Big Bubble Radio. Sundays at 9pm, repeated on Wed 10pm: https://bigbubble.uk/
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Reblogged this on Fierce Writing and commented:
The fact that Justin managed to get such an accomplished sound out of working on his own in a tiny seven-foot room stuffed with intruments makes you wonder what he might have achieved in a full-size studio with a real band at his disposal…