Evangelist – The Evangelist (Underscore Collective)
Out 11th of December
The unmistakable voice of This Is England. A posthumous release with some heavyweight friends along for the ride. A late album of the year contender and a concept album at that. Louder Than War’s Joe Whyte reviews.
‘I’ve got 20 years of all the bullshit that surrounds this, 5 points of Calvinism, spinning coins (predestination versus freewill). I’ve got a lot to say about it all. Church to me, is not brick, pricks or spires, it’s life. Giving time to an old guy on the train who wants to tell you of his life, tramps, the hurt, the hungry – this is Church, this is Jesus to me, hookers and fools…..Shit, I’ve become the preacher!’
(Gavin Woods, 2014 in an email to co-conspirators Pablo Clements and James Griffiths)
The sad news of the passing of Gavin Clark earlier this year at the young age of 46 was as unexpected as it was tragic. Anyone who’s watched Shane Meadows’ This Is England will be familiar with his haunting, ethereal voice. The cover of Morrissey and Marr’s Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want which played over the end credits of the movie as Shaun throws the Union Flag into the sea as he comes to terms with his own adulthood and the death of his soldier father amidst the turmoil of late eighties Britain is a sequence that virtually burns from the screen. Few people have covered The Smiths and added anything of worth, far less the pathos and ache that Clark did here.
It wasn’t the first, or the last, time he would work with the director Shane Meadows. A close friend for many years, Meadows would always have Clark’s back – from his earliest student films to the projects he would work on after Clark’s death. Shane memorably made a documentary about his friend just last year, a paean to his talents and encouragement from Meadows to get Clark playing live again after a sustained period of anxiety (after quitting drink) had crippled Clark’s confidence in his own abilities.
Outside of his career-long work with Shane Meadows, Clark’s work would be well received critically, if not commercially, and as well as solo material he released records with Sunhouse, who were signed by the then A&R and now successful author John Niven, and afterwards with his folk trio Clayhill. While both acts made their dents, it was his work with UNKLE that would reach the most people. Who was the man behind that voice? And it was this successful collaboration that led to the formation of friendships with Pablo Clements and James Griffiths, the other musicians (from Toydrum as well as UNKLE) behind this ambitious posthumous release, The Evangelist.
So, to Evangelist. And what a record it is. The aforementioned Smiths cover is no indicator of what is to come. This is an album full of pulsing electronica, skittering power-jazz drumming, bubbling, dubby bass and that ghostly, celestial voice.
The Evangelist, a concept album, is a loosely autobiographical tale about a preacher’s life. Exaggerated a little like any great tale, it would follow his peak, his downward spiral into drugs and vice, his attempted redemption and ultimately his failure.
Given that even taking this narrative out of the equation leaves you with a record that puzzles as often as it pleases, “Evangelist” is a difficult one to pigeonhole. The casual listen to something like “Same Hands” might suggest the appalling lad-rock of Kasabian. Thankfully, that impression quickly evaporates amongst the walloping fuzzed-out bass, handclaps and glam-descend of the chorus and helium backing vocals. It’s krautrock for the 21st century, filtered through several decades of dance music and pulled screaming from the dancefloor and into cerebral rather than feet territory. There’s a hint of Spacemen 3 or Spiritualized’s lysergic adventures in the double-tracked chorus and gurgling effects deep in the mix. “Follow the father, follow the sun” intones Clark as the song peaks.
The album opens with the reflective “The World That I Created” with its deep, sonorous piano chords and the spectral sound of Clark examining his spirituality. Sliding neatly into “Spirit” as Clark intones “here it comes” is a smart trick; it quickly resolves into James Brown funky drummer fills and a falsetto chorus before a mind-melting vintage synth break lifts it higher.
“I’m In Love Tonight” is part-spoken intro over a gentle synth refrain and the bass playing a melodic run that follows Clark’s vocal. An aching violin is a nice touch and the song, which arcs along without drums, is an eerie journey. Massed vocals join towards the end and Clark’s whispered “nothing really matters at all” is a sly nod (I presume) to Bohemian Rhapsody.
“God Song” is the single from the album and is perhaps the central thing herein; it opens with a bass guitar being attacked with a plectrum and sounding like an axe chopping wood. The Old Testament narrative sees Clark preaching the blues like the demented preacher within. There’s a little of the early Bad Seeds in this one with the drums joining the fray after about three minutes and Clark’s “slip away, slip away” recalling Cave’s Elvis infatuations.
“Know One Will Ever Know” sees what is feeling like a trademark swooping bass and sizzling cymbals engage with Clark’s clipped vocal and the “woo-oo” backing vocals and “Never Feel This Young” is a clever synth and vocal-led lament with a gorgeous piano coda over the ending.
Evangelist is very much a labour of love for the people who’ve been involved in taking it to completion and for that alone it begs a listen. It is, however, one of the best records I’ve heard this year and it has had some notable competition.
All words by Joe Whyte, find his Louder Than War archive here.