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The Lead Review

Orcadian Rhythms: Erland Cooper's Hether Blether
Jeremy Allen , May 28th, 2020 08:43

Orkney's Erland Cooper offers up an imagined idyll for days indoors, finds Jeremy Allen

credit: Alex Kozobolis

One of the more memorable scenes from Joris-Karl Huysmans’ decadent, fin-de-siècle novel Against Nature features the main character, Jean des Esseintes, setting out on a trip from Paris to London with a carriage laden with trunks, packages, valises, rugs, umbrellas and canes. Des Esseintes has barely moved along the Rue de Rivoli when he decides to buy a guide for London and then disappears into one of the passages couverts where he samples wines and gets caught up in the mercantile hubbub, enjoying the English voices around him that remind him of the characters from Dickens he plans to observe for himself once he gets to the British capital. Back in the fiacre, enduring a battering from the rain, he makes another impromptu stop at a pub, where he gets pissed and comes to the realisation that the reality of actually going there might not be as good as the fantasy and, in order now to avoid a dash to the station, decides to return to his home in Fontenay rather than undertake an arduous journey across La Manche only to be met with disappointment.

That’s about as adventurous as Against Nature gets. It’s a novel about staying in and appreciating one’s own interior, and unsurprisingly, it’s a book many have turned to in quarantine. Des Esseintes is a dandy, but he’s no flaneur. He argues passionately that nature has had its day and that “artifice is the distinctive mark of human genius”. Staying in is something we’ve all been forced to endure the past few months, and it makes the task of reviewing an album about “nature, people and place” - by admission of the artist - a curious one.

Hether Blether is the final part of a triptych by Orcadian musician Erland Cooper concerning the islands he grew up on. It’s a record about location and about freedom at a time when we’ve all been constrained and unable to travel to visit anywhere unless we’re Dominic Cummings. Hether Blether is an album about nature, though in our current predicament, it brings home to us that it’s a simulacrum of nature - a work of artifice designed to evoke the natural world, which in a way is what des Esseintes was advocating.

“The secret lies in knowing how to proceed, how to concentrate deeply enough to produce the hallucination and succeed in substituting the dream reality for the reality itself,” wrote Huysmans. With the help of some laudanum, des Essientes recreates a sea voyage by reading brochures and fixing his gaze on the objects that he’s collected in his personal cabinet of curiosities, examining “coloured engravings, hung on the walls, which represented, just as at Lloyd's office and the steamship agencies, steamers bound for Valparaiso and La Platte, and looked at framed pictures on which were inscribed the itineraries of the Royal Mail Steam Packet, the Lopez and the Valery Companies, the freight and port calls of the Atlantic mail boats. If he tired of consulting these guides, he could rest his eyes by gazing at the chronometers and sea compasses, the sextants, field glasses and cards strewn on a table on which stood a single volume, bound in sealskin.”

I’ve never been to the Orkneys. I’ve read Amy Liptrot’s magnificent addiction memoir The Outrun and I’ve spoken to Erland about his records and the processes he used to make them. It’s an interesting sonic illusion, bound up in field recording, where he travels to Orkney and captures the essence of a church or a landscape by holding a microphone in the air and sampling it, then takes it back to his London studio and manipulates it, building the music around what he’s captured. It’s both intimate and detached at the same time, a paradox of modernity that wouldn’t have been achievable until quite recently.

As luck would have it, before writing this review, Cooper sent me - and presumably all of the other journalists writing about the record - a specially designed Orkney tourist map and guide picking out his favourite parts of the island for walking and birdwatching. On the other side of his charming guide is a map of Orkney, which becomes a visual aid when listening to Hether Blether, adding to the transportation, des Essientes-style, to the shores of the north eastern archipelago. The third part is concerned with the landscape where previous albums Solan Goose was about the sky and Sule Skerry was a sea adventure. On the new record, it becomes apparent that the tracklisting hasn’t only been put together according to which songs sound best nestled next to each other, but, with the map as reference, it appears the tracks are arranged so that we’re taken on a circulatory journey around the islands, starting from where Erland grew up in Papa Westray, and ending up in Stromness in the south. On the way, we take in the places, the atmospheres and even some of the folklore.

The title Hether Blether comes from an old legend about a Rousay girl who disappears. The narrative is recited by the musician Kathryn Joseph on the opening piece of music, ‘Noup Head’. The story goes that the missing girl turns up alive on a mystery island off the coast many years later, discovered by her father and brothers, who sail there by chance. They try to persuade their long absent family member – now a grown up woman – to return to Rousay with them, and while she politely refuses, she gives them a knife which allows them access to return to the island whenever they like. In all of the excitement, the knife somehow falls overboard on the journey back and is lost to the seabed, and the isle of Hether Blether is lost to them forever too, though it can sometimes be seen west of the uninhabited Eynhallow.

Other songs on this gadabout across the islands include the pretty ‘Peedie Breeks’, named after the Orcadian expression for short trousers, which builds and dissipates like a musical round. The beautiful, atmospheric ‘Skreever’ – a local name for wind – almost veers into classical post-rock territory, though it’s not all bucolic pastures and romantic windswept vistas. ‘Linga Holm’, has a pulsing, rhythmical underbelly that invokes the terrifying and exhilarating aspects of the wild, and the title track, which almost errs into sentimentality, is saved by its sonic denouement, which fizzes in and out like a rave coming up somewhere in the distance as one careens around dark, haunted country lanes.

Cooper’s trilogy is an achievement, because it tackles memory and place with emotive and sometimes nostalgic reverie without ever becoming kitschy, or turning into a glorified advert for the local tourist board. A deep understanding of, and affection for, the subject matter, coupled with a huge musical curiosity makes these records an unmitigated triumph, and with Hether Blether, Cooper saves the best for last.

You don’t really have to be into nature to appreciate Hether Blether. Unlike many of my counterparts in the south east, I have never felt a compulsion to write about the restorative powers of nature, don’t think about David Attenborough very often, haven’t quite got my head around the concept of rewilding – for good or for bad – and, on the whole, have an aversion to the great outdoors. I’ve never been to the Orkneys, though I did once venture over to Mull on the west coast at the behest of a partner during my drinking days. On arrival from Oban I was floored by the scenery, bored once the scenery had lost its novelty value after a few minutes, and then spent three days in a B&B with a terrible hangover and gastroenteritis. So I’m happy to explore Orkney virtually with the help of the internet, a map mimicking a brochure from the tourist board, and Erland Cooper’s thoughts and sounds. Hether Blether is the product of Cooper’s cultivated sensory perceptions of his former surroundings and enjoying it from the comfort of your own armchair at home is a glorious way to spend thirty-five minutes. It’s an experience you can enjoy again and again without receiving a visit from the police. As des Essientes would have it, the secret is knowing how to proceed.