I Like Trains
Simon Jay Catling
, May 11th, 2012 07:34
Not that bookies would have been offering odds on it, but if anyone was going to conceptualise Nicholas Carr's Pulitzer-nominated book The Shallows there was always the chance that I Like Trains would be at the front of the queue. A group who immerse themselves in the documentation of humanity's thankless toil, the results of their research rarely reveals a world of black and whites and definite outcomes. Instead, like all good storytellers they dramatise and create scenarios based on the facts that they've assembled. You only need look at lyric writer and vocalist Dave Martin's use of historical figures in their earlier work on Progress Reform and Elegies To Lessons Learnt, or their graphic depiction of earth's watery demise at the hands of rising sea levels on their last LP He Who Saw The Deep, to recognise a keen sense of narration whether it be digging up tragic figures from the past, or envisaging a man-made apocalypse.
In book form The Shallows explored the potential of our brains to be re-wired through our changing habits in absorbing information and how, in a 21st century where we're constantly connected to the internet, that feeling is becoming ever more present within us. How Martin deals with this backdrop in his lyrics isn't far from how Carr writes it in the first place. The latter mines reference points and theories from past and present, but shapes them in a way so that they never go too far beyond his own, his personal experiences of what he describes right at the book's beginning as "something re-mapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming my memory" and thus tweaking the narrative.
Similarly, Martin writes using a variety of reference points and thematic signposts. Some are more obvious than others; the title 'Mnemosyne' references the Greek goddess of memory, the last two tracks 'We Used To Talk' and 'In Tongues' join together as a pair, their names and the content within reflecting perhaps the change in which we communicate with one another. 'Water/Sand's' title and its chorus "I made channels for others to follow," meanwhile, works both as a reference to 19th century French philosopher Léon Dumont – who described the effects of experience on the brain as similar to when "flowing water hollows out a channel for itself which grows broader and deeper" – and also as a suggestion for technology's gradual conquering of a physically interacting society. This is supported in phrases such as "sever our limbs and see where it leads us," its implication, perhaps, of our increased time spent sat down, plugged in, zoned out.
Martin's actual style of writing hasn't changed a great deal; he's still fond of epic imagery and continually uses God-like and mythological characters and semiotics to reach his goal. That such devices lie against a scientifically-focused context, however, gives The Shallows a great sense of juxtaposition, abstract beliefs fluttering gamely amidst a present day of cold logic and relentless exploration to find the reality of human life. It differs greatly, too, from the sonic shift that I Like Trains as a whole have taken on this album; again reflective of man's submergence under machine, The Shallows glints with the emotionless twinkle of synth burble and hum, their front man's baritone fighting against a marching motorik, as on opener 'Beacons,' or creeping around probing drones on 'The Turning Of The Bones'.
The album – their third full-length - was produced by Richard Formby, the man widely credited with taking Wild Beasts excitable yelps and clatter and drawing a streamlined sound that allowed each component to find space and breathe on their second, Mercury-nominated, LP Two Dancers and subsequent Smother. He searches for the same conclusion here, though thankfully never fully reins in the four-piece's penchant for more panoramic sounds. 'Reykjavik' ascends towards crescendo as gracefully as anything they've previously sculpted, while the 'The Hive' unfurls in its finale, stretching to fill every expanse.
Elsewhere though much of the record feels like it's been placed on gridlines, thanks largely to the resolute metronome of Simon Fogal's drumming which methodically moves between the foundations for each of the nine tracks. Opening trio 'Beacons,' 'Mnemosyne' and 'The Shallows' are perhaps as direct a sound as the band have ever produced and it's here that their true progression is evident, now comfortably free of any of the cumbersome post-rock tags that they were lumbered with upon their arrival over half a decade ago.
I Like Trains have never shied away from confronting the potentially fatal realities that face humanity, doing so in such a considered and informed way that their albums carry substantially more weight than other acts who freely predict our impending demise. While more and more of those widely championed within UK music seem wholly immersed in escapism - a popularity borne perhaps out of our own greater efforts to switch off from the 21st century's unpredictable turbulence - I Like Trains confront, analyse and twist their results into music that works on a deeper level of cerebral stimulation, managing to perfect the fine balance between information and emotional evocation in its delivery.
The Shallows is no different; at nine tracks it's their shortest LP, and yet it feels like their most perfectly realised attempt at concept yet. In his book, Carr fears that our increased connectivity has obliterated our capacity to maintain attention. With this latest album, though, I Like Trains dare you to do anything but stay rapt.