Estuarine Echoes

Making musical sense of a lost Essex

Text by Tim Burrows

Photography by Sophie Sleigh-Johnson

When These New Puritains’ Jack and George Barnett were around eight or nine, they suffered a minor shipwreck with their dad while attempting to sail the fairly short distance from the shoreline of Leigh-on-Sea to the marshy Two Tree Island. Though father and sons were picked up by another boat as theirs sank, and so avoided disaster, it is tempting to find the germ of bandleader and chief songwriter Jack’s persistent fascination with the river – so evident in their third album, Field of Reeds – in this formative event. The band’s latest is less of an obvious paean to Old Father Thames than their last record, the critically lauded Hidden, which made explicit references in its lyrics to the river. Yet Field of Reeds provokes a feeling as murky and sublime as the estuary itself and, after repeated listens, begins to feel more personal and immersive than its predecessor.

The twins’ hometown, Leigh, is part of the wider Essex borough of Southend-on-Sea, a long, sprawling conurbation on the north bank of the Thames, just west of the mouth where the river meets the North Sea. It is the first major town on that northern bank sighted by ships coming in to London or the port of Tilbury – or, soon, the Dubai-financed London Gateway container port being built at Shell Haven, near Canvey Island. The area’s big skies and uneasy position between city and sea are documented in the opening pages of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “The sea-reach of the Thames stretched out before us like an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and sky were welded together without a joint.”

These New Puritans have long thrived on a productive tension between their obsession with the local and a global-mindedness that has prompted them to scour the world for sounds, from the dramatic Japanese Taiko drums heard on Hidden to the syrup-voiced Portuguese fado singer Elisa Rodrigues, who duets with Barnett throughout Field of Reeds. The group’s output resists easy interpretation and is in no way inward-looking, yet the Barnetts have always referenced and made aesthetic use of the setting that fostered them. Though obfuscated by such odd details as the sound of percussionist George smashing a pane of glass, or the flapping wings of a harrier hawk named Shiloh, the sense of place that courses through Field of Reeds is undeniable. The whole album seems to coast along at a pace not unlike that of the container ships that crawl across the central channel of the river. The slowly enveloping melodrama “The Light in Your Name” is the record’s spiritual centrepiece, conjuring up the misty eeriness of the mouth of the estuary. “When I row out the air and sea become one thing,” Barnett sings, echoing Conrad, in a low, muffled, nasal tone that’s most powerful in its refusal to be clear. “Until I reach the mouth / And though the waves’ll hit / Don’t let them pull you away.” Behind the lyrics, a distant boom repeats, which Barnett made by holding down a sustain pedal while thumping his piano so hard he bruised his hand. The sound brings to mind the explosions emanating from weapons-testing sites at the MOD-run Maplin Sands and Foulness (the largest of the Essex islands), which will be familiar to any Southender.

There are allusions to water, waves, sea and river in most of the songs here. On “Nothing Else”, Barnett sings about being “beneath the rolling waves” over a piano line full of resignation, in a fragment of music taken from an aborted song cycle he was writing about the islands of Essex. In “V (Island Song)”, the protagonist is on an island where “there are no places or people / But I’ll go walking / And on the way I’ll find you”. On Hidden, shades of silver and grey were conjured by dramatic choral arrangements, woodwinds, strings, brass, pianos and percussion, an effect that reappears here. Barnett’s evocation of the sea – its colour and ambiguity – draws emotional resonance from the quirks of his experience, shifting the music’s depiction of place from what could be parochial to something deeper.separates the documentarian from the artist is that the latter isn’t in it to communicate objective truth– an album like Field of Reeds is as instantly accessible a form of documentary as water itself. Instead, listeners are encouraged to dive into it as a mudlark does the Thames, to find something to feed their own hunches.

In the band’s early interviews, Barnett claimed to be part of the “Thames Estuary tradition”, placing himself in an artistic lineage from Daniel Defoe, who lived on the edge of the river in Tilbury, to the Canvey Island group Dr Feelgood (in particular guitarist Wilko Johnson) by way of J. M. W. Turner, who painted the area’s melancholic pools and marshes. Barnett has arguably made it his aim, like the painter, to recapture the sense of a lost Essex sublime.

The back cover of the EP Now Pluvial, released in 2006 when the band were still a post-punk-driven explosion of ideas, featured spliced cut-ups of aerial maps of Southend. The 2010 video for “We Want War” imagined the group as water spirits floating over a London cityscape, as if the Thames were somehow flowing above the capital. Field of Reeds was announced in April with the online release of a minute-or-so-long film, shot by George, which begins with a car ride onto Two Tree Island, known these days for its reputation as the dogging capital of Essex. The scene feels like an homage to the credits of David Lynch’s Lost Highway, with unfocused flashes of a car’s headlights on a dark and ghostly Essex marshland track replacing the straight-up psychotic thrill of the American open road at night. Lights on the shoreline of Canvey fuse into footage of a piano in the studio.

Lately, Sophie Sleigh-Johnson, an intermittent member of These New Puritans since their early days in Southend, has been studying the numinous nature of the marshes. In her writing, and in works such as “Essex Chorography” (pictured), she reframes the county’s coast as an untraceable text. “These marshes posit a space of otherness, the islands a radically fragmented and borderless terrain that offers something tangible yet beyond visibility,” Sleigh-Johnson writes in an essay for Thames Delta, a publication she edited on Thames Estuary music for Southend’s Focal Point Gallery. “Music also inhabits this space of the interval... the invisible within air through the making-present and inscribing of the immaterial.”

Her words seem apt when ruminating on the Puritans’ project – an enigmatic music that alludes to Jacques Derrida’s “poetics of absence” while maintaining a link with Essex’s more subversive mythologies, such as that of Dr Feelgood, whose guitarist Wilko Johnson has been playing farewell gigs this year after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He has been bewitched by the estuary all his life. When These New Puritans first started playing the basement venues and pub function rooms of Essex, their set featured a sly reference to Dr Feelgood’s gunslinger guitarist, with bassist Tom Hein skittling backwards and forwards, eyes fixed ahead. It was a conceit thought up by Jack, a nod to Johnson, his hero, and an attempt, he suggested to me in 2007, as we drank in a bar off Oxford Street before seeing the great man play, to become part of the genealogy of the area – something that has been an implicit guiding principle ever since. §

Field of Reeds by These New Puritans is out now on Domino.

  • Estuarine Echoes