Review Summary: You're alone in an isolated lighthouse and a dead man's hand beckons from outside.
In 1800, a crew of two set out on a twenty mile boat trip to man Smalls Lighthouse off the coast of Wales. They were known to quarrel, so when one later died in a freak accident the other knew that to throw the body in the sea was to raise suspicion and sign away his life to prison. He built a coffin instead, and for want of smell and space lashed it to the outside of the building where the wind soon tore it open. The dead man's arm fell out to become trapped outside the lighthouse's window and, whenever the wind caught it, the hand would seem to beckon to the lone survivor. One man, stranded in the middle of the sea, had to spend months with a corpse welcoming him to death. It doesn't go too far to say he wasn't entirely the same by the time he returned to land.
I would have thought any soundtrack to this story would be quite dramatic, but Michael Tanner thinks otherwise. The most tranquil moment on a very peaceful album comes right at the end: with the trapped hand and one living inhabitant. It is as if he is looking to highlight the sheer weight of temptation faced by the lonely sailor, who was constantly reminded of the endless respite madness or even death would give him from his haunted life. "Sirens" is as lovely as they come but made sinister once the listener puts themselves in the lighthouse keeper's boots, and when the delicate sighs and piano loops whittle away at our hardy exteriors it's impossible not to think of what we would do in that situation. Life would seem like meaningless, reflective toil in wait for the serenity of death. Why not slip into fantasy?
It is a good thing Music for Smalls Lighthouse
saw a reissue near the end of last year; passing by older treasures is all too easy when so many artists put food on the table with limited releases. One can't help but draw links with the likes of Night Shift's Trespassers Guide to Nowhere
: both were destined to only be enjoyed by a privileged few, and both deserved a much broader audience. Now this album is available to everyone, we're given the comforting thought of many others as equally wrapped up in the narrative as us. It isn't as rare an experience as it may once have been; for better I'd hope, it can only be nice to find something as warm as companionship in music so intrinsically introverted. As we connect with the plight of the lighthouse keeper we also connect with others doing the same. I think it's quite beautiful.
In the end, field recordings are the real driving force behind Music for Smalls Lighthouse
. Crashing waves, wind and creaking timber feature more often than not in their role of setting the scene, but more unique, often devilishly quiet sounds tell the story. Bells tolling and a hammer striking wood say far more than words or pictures ever could, tangling the story's devastating hooks deep into our individual reactions to this scenario. Tanner's piano and guitar accompany these events like a stream of consciousness: tumbling over the same memories and showing signs of almost slipping completely towards the end of "Solicitude." We drift between these parts effortlessly for all their deceptive calm.
And there's the thing: for all the narrative despair, Music for Smalls Lighthouse
leaves the listener almost refreshed. Any focus on death, sanity or loneliness -whatever you want to dwell on- is done in a manner so reflective it is difficult not to greet the lot with a kind of warm acceptance. What pain we might feel is immediately swallowed by the steady swells of the ocean, so we remain as individuals unaware of the true extent of our feelings. Utterly overwhelmed. The only clear, identifiable response is endless empathy for the man who had to go through this alone, and who wouldn't have known whether he'd make it out with mind intact.