Stray Ghost: A Shade Under Thirty – album review
A Shade Under Thirty
A Shade Under Thirty is the new album by Brighton-based composer and multi-instrumentalist, Anthony Baden-Saggers, also known as Stray Ghost. This latest collection of melancholic, piano-centric compositions is his first release for Phases Records.
As the title suggests, a mood of contemplative reflection haunts this album from start to finish, interweaving the personal and political with a dexterity that opens up key themes without reducing them to broad brush strokes. In these tracks we find Stray Ghost ruminating over his own achievements and mortality as the title of the album suggests, but also there are pieces here stimulated by climate change, the horrors of war and the uplifting and enduring swell of love as a counterpoint, musically and thematically, to the sorrow.
Despite the emphasis on universal themes, the strength of A Shade Under Thirty lies in its intimacy – the sparseness of the arrangements never feel cold or isolated, they are instead infused with the personal and the confidential. We find a track dedicated to Nick Cave, following his own personal tragedy in recent times, and Solace (Music for Nennad), the single that prefaced the release of the album, is dedicated to Nennad Novakovich, a mentor to Stray Ghost in his formative years.
Piano notes are struck like feet planted amongst the pebbles, upon the shingle shores and into the sodden sand, each note sustained, imprinted in its wake before the next is made. Chords coalesce, a clear cool winter breeze cuts through between the moments, fluid and shining in the low-angled light as we walk, our footsteps upon footsteps, the present and the past intertwined as we pick through the strandline: from the Brighton of today to the Brighthelmstone of yesterday, from the conviction we have of ourselves as stable, fixed identities to the elusive truth of our constant flux. On the shoreline at the edge of A Shade Under Thirty, in Brighthelmstone, we are the incoming tide rushing in, each wave different from the last… and we are the beach itself, eroding with every moment, shifting, reconfiguring, our stony carapace a thousand shades of colour filtered through a lifetime of saltwater and sun, dark nights and blue sky days.
Buoyed across the Channel upon sweet accordion exhalations, we stalk the streets and linger in the dusty plazas in which the name of Jaurés can still be seen. One, two, three steps forward along these southerly promenades, to the left and back, back a century and more when there was still hope before the bullets, before the bombs, before the leaving and the no return.
But even now, after all this, there is warmth and consolation in Solace (Music for Nennad). Cautiously, tentatively, even after great loss we can find our feet again and the footsteps beneath our own circuitous route are interlaced with the treads of fellow travellers. We forge ahead where once they led the way.
This is your twenties, your teens and everything that came before. On these wild shores of your experience you begin to see that behind you, every player, every part fixed now in memory, fixed now in history, every atom, every particle, every howl of despair, every rapturous scream cannot define you. As the sea races over the shore and your fingers alight on the black keys and the white, from day to night, from night to day, from twenty nine to thirty: you are every moment more than the sum of your parts. For even those amongst us forever in the darkness, there are strings austere but swollen with fellow feeling, a Sonata for the Hope Deprived and in some dignified unity, there is a shoulder to cry on, a glimmer of the future at the end of the tunnel. I am in a Kieslowski film, I am across the faded, invisible borders of a Europe that even now is fragmenting beneath my feet: I am Kieslowski, I am Priesner, I am European, I am British. I am lost. But like you, I am lost and maybe, just maybe, amongst the strings, the synths and the purity of piano, we can be lost un-lost together.
Music for Nick resounds in empty rooms, cavernous hallways of a house at night. Resounding, emphatic, undeniably real and hard like the banisters, the table top and the lid of the piano. Your hands spread out on the window sill, the wooden frame beneath your skin, your breath opaque upon the cold black glass. Undeniably real in contrast to all that is lost, every surface so tangible, so replaceable no matter how beloved… unlike all that is lost. Every inanimate object, every configuration of furniture, makes your absence all the more real.
But there, beneath your fingers, invigorated by the vibrations of the strings, she begins to emerge, flickering through stilted old film stock, there she is again. The same woman as last time. In this 5th variation, we catch another glimpse of Eliza, sepia skin, eyes low, gaze distant this time, the notes of her scale slowed down and for a moment she brings us into a fragment of her world, a fragment of her life – and then she is gone once more.
Perhaps we are all lost in our Eliza-like bubbles, our lives and our selves visible only to others for a short time, exchanging glances as our worlds intersect through the distortion and the shimmer of Life In The Flickering On – Off, as with every screen shot eye blink we outsource all that we are to zeroes and ones… A Shade Under Thirty is a long look back, through ourselves to the profound beyond.
You can watch the video for Sonata for the Hope Deprived here:
All words by Lee Ashworth. More writing by Lee Ashworth can be found at his author’s archive. Lee Ashworth is also on twitter as @Lee_Ashworth_ and has a website here. He is one half of The Manchester Art Authority.