Home And Away: Bulbils’ Blue Forty

Compiling some of their best bits from an extensive lockdown archive, Richard Dawson and Sally Pilkington have produced a salve for our collective malaise, finds Johny Lamb

Here is a curious thing: Blue Tapes are releasing three tracks by Bulbils, a collaboration between Richard Dawson and his Hen Ogledd bandmate Sally Pilkington. Not so remarkable at first glance, but these tracks are selected favourites from the – count them, please – sixty-three albums they made together during the thick of the pandemic. This is an astonishing feat and more than some manage to assemble across an entire career, so why just three tracks?

Well, they’re quite long, with the first, which comprises all of side A, clocking in at just over thirty-seven minutes. All this preamble is noteworthy because I think it’s important to recognise a couple of things before diving into this music. Given the sheer amount they’ve made, we can assume this has been made quickly, we can also assume that it’s been made at home and that its production reflects that. But more than these practicalities, we should perhaps acknowledge the resonance of the pandemic itself. The press release summarises this very well, with “the peculiar mix of banality and terror that descended during that first lockdown were a whole new type of feeling. On the one hand, banana bread, in the other – screaming internalised fear”.

This really does capture something of our shared experience, the alarming isolation of our friends – or ourselves – the loss of family time, young dads separated from newborns, childless couples losing their patience with broken parents because it’s fucking hard for them too, the denial, the hypocrisy, the utter cruelty of how we have sometimes treated each other. But then the kindness, the community spirit, the support through grief, the gifted work-time gin and tonics on middle-class balconies. All this while we watch despots, thieves, liars, and corrupt officials thrash around their fiscal woes across the globe. We compare everything that disgruntles us with Nazism from both sides of the political spectrum. The project of Woke was turned into a pejorative so fast that all discourse descends immediately into online bickering and omnidirectional calls for cancellation. Oh, and sourdough. It has been, and remains a deeply troubling time, where we see the worst and the best in ourselves.

Inevitably, there will be lots of lockdown art made. Inevitably, we’ll be super cynical about all of it. But, if my previous paragraph chimes with anyone, it will hopefully underscore the emotional need for a beautifully indulgent forty-minute space rock jam. Thank you, Bulbils. As we continue to hurtle through a world that openly lies to us, where we attack each other from safe anonymous social media accounts, where we send death threats to doctors for trying to vaccinate us, the chance to be lost in a repeating major key riff is like being handed a Valium and told to take the day off. I genuinely welcome this release and the time I’ve spent with it. Just Pilkington’s chuckle at the end of the opening track is balm to the noise of our current lives.

There’s a kind of irony to all this though. The paranoia, neurosis, and complexity of modern life is Dawson’s bread and butter. It’s so delicious that at this point in time he chooses to make something that feels so warm, uncomplicated, and generous. You’d expect his most harrowing work to date – and perhaps that is yet to come – but here as a collaborator amongst the ideas of Pilkington, he’s all wonky bass lines and sitting back in motorik groove. It is, as the press release claims, “Healing”.

‘Journey of the Canada Goose’ (said first track) is deceptive in its apparent simplicity. Built around a two-note organ riff, it builds, fades, slides, and weaves its way through quite a lot of territory. The introduction of the major third at about forty seconds in, following the beat, brings us straight to Neu! and a potential sprawling Krautrock piece. The bass line (which might be an octaved guitar) moves us somewhere else, though. It sounds amazing, played just too hard with slightly incongruous grace notes at every change, and makes me think of Circle at their most relentless, and how they can structure such density with relatively minimalist ideas. The form is laconic on the whole, and this makes the melodic dancing of the organ the real focal point of the piece. Once the melody starts to get more playful and complex, it is never once overshadowed or obscured. It is just supported by the other instruments and allowed to flourish. Not that easy in such a drawn-out piece. The playing is so unhurried and relaxed, there’s a really keen sense of the pair just nodding along to themselves and enjoying the way things unfold. It’s catching, a huge part of the appeal of this release.

‘The Easter Bunny’ seems to have a little more of each player’s signature styles, with articulate folk-like guitar work and broad, soft and gorgeously voiced chordal organ work. The instruments are in conversation over a quiet but harmonically vital drone, neither accompanying the other, but both finding a balanced symbiosis of presence and difference. These give way a little after five minutes or so, to allow human voices to join in over a speedy and energetic ostinato in the organ. It is, for something so roughly hewn in terms of polish and production, almost indescribably pretty. Nine-and-a-half minutes in, the guitar takes up its own moment in what you could reasonably think of as a solo. It’s fleeting, but lovely. I could happily hear a whole load more of it. Just when we think we’ve got a handle on the topography of this track, the percussion begins. Unobtrusive but urgent. I start to wonder if nearly all popular music is much too short. It changes quite radically, but with such subtlety, without ever startling us or indeed moving away from its essential elements. I love this track.

The third, much shorter track, ‘Holy Smoke’, is an unnerving gear change, and after the coddling embrace of the first two tracks, it feels almost frightening. The cymbal feels like it’s been put there by John Cage and the bass-heavy drone shifts weirdly toward an occasional implied dissonance that never quite takes hold. It is an uncanny place. It’s both constantly shifting and almost stationary. It’s a thick and heavy track fraught with tension, fear and nervous indecision. Perhaps this is where the dualism of the last twenty-or-so months starts to sound. In amongst the joy of playing, the comfort of collaboration still sounds somehow the confused and isolated horror of it all. This track is seven minutes spent deep in the pandemic-ravaged, Brexit-crippled little dystopia that the UK often seems to be now, and of course, it’s the perfect way to end this release. Having given us ointment for the wounds, honey for our throats, and blankets for our loneliness with both kindness and skill, Pilkington and Dawson turn around on their way out to remind us that, just as we were starting to forget, everything is fucked.

It’s funny, that while there are no lyrics here to spell things out to me, I have learned something quite valuable from this release. Or at least, it’s made me think enough to realise it. None of us knows how to act at the moment. We’re free, sort of, but we’re either trying to not loudly perform that freedom, or we’re being belligerent and aggressive about it. We can go to pubs, gigs, theatres, but we don’t know what it is to be in them again yet, or its consequence. Fear of nature’s chaos has made conspiracy rife. But here in the gesture of these two people we find that yes, things are unusual and scary, but doing things together, small, human things, like making music or anything creative and shared, is the answer. It is the untwisting of what my wife calls a “cultural torsion”. These beautifully conceived, unhurried and not overworked pieces feel like a genuine medicine to me. Even at its darkest moment, it’s still more comforting than my own thoughts. Take twice daily after food.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today