Article by KevW
The history of Lancashire town Skelmersdale isn't something I'd particularly considered prior to hearing the new album by The Magnetic North, the band comprising of Simon Tong (The Verve, Gorillaz, The Good, the Bad & the Queen, Erland & the Carnival), Erland Cooper (Erland & the Carnival) and Hannah Peel. To give a brief overview, the old coal mining village was designated a "new town" in 1961 and underwent heavy development to help absorb the post-war overspill from the Merseyside area, but by the 1980s it was failing, as unemployment rose and house prices fell. In an interesting twist, the town was chosen as the UK home of the Transcendental Meditation movement, as it was deemed the perfect site for them to build their "ideal maharishi village complete with gold meditation dome". It's perhaps not what you'd expect from an old northern mining town, but that makes it all the more interesting and you can see why it was chosen as the subject matter for the group's second album. Skelmersdale was also where Simon Tong spent part of his childhood, and given that their debut album was written about Cooper's home, Orkney, it seems a logical next port of call.
As you'll no doubt have guessed, 'Prospect Of Skelmersdale' is a concept album, but there's no particular narrative as such, instead the pieces of the puzzle are jumbled up, and although the music is sometimes ambient and cinematic, it's hardly a dull prog odyssey. The impact of the Transcendental Meditation movement is clearly touched upon with opener 'Jai Guru Dev', moving from sighing vocals to a sample of the speech given as the centre was opened. Later, 'Remains Of Elmer' gives a description of some of the movement's practices to a string-laden experimental rock backing.
'Pennylands' seems to speak of the excitement of moving to an "unknown" new town, with playful orchestration backing the soup of soft voices, creating a lighthearted dreampop sound and making for one of the more instant tracks on the album. 'Sandy Lane' has the feel of some of Paul McCartney's more orchestrated Beatles songs, and the arrangements have a soundtrack quality, as someone from the development company talks eagerly about the possibilities that came with this fresh urban area. It feels as though the sun is shining and the world is full of promise and wonder. This slightly baroque feel permeates the record, with 'A Death In The Woods' coming over like Vivaldi going pop, and with plenty of invention which includes the introduction of electronic beats for the second section of the song. There's also a filmic quality to the sweeping 'Cergy - Pontoise'.
On a record that very much works best as a whole, it's easy to see why 'Signs' was chosen as a single. It remains true to the spirit of 'The Prospect Of Skelmersdale', but is that bit more upbeat and accessible, although the gently swelling 'Little Jerusalem' is just as affecting. For all its promise and sometimes jaunty arrangements ('The Silver Birch' being a prime example), sadness can be found, especially on 'Exit' as it builds to become quietly grandiose, and also the sweetly lush 'Northway Southway'. Final track, 'Run Of The Mill', appears to be addressing the unfulfilled hope of Skelmersdale as if it were a personal relationship.
Overall, you'd have to say that 'Prospect Of Skelmersdale' is a quite poignant album, and one that bathes the intriguing history of this town in a golden light, as though it were an old friend. The music is often intricate and beautifully put together, so that if you strip away any back story it would still be an impressive and moving set of songs. The Magnetic North have made a splendid new addition to an already colourful history.
The Magnetic North's website
Buy: 'Prospect Of Skelmersdale'
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