There’s this really annoying obsession with trying to pin bands down. Box them into tidy categories that make them digestible and convenient for journalists and PR. Squid, a Brighton-formed/London-based quintet, make this almost impossible. Defiantly jumping from Eno-esque soundscapes to Richard Hell-influenced vocals, there’s an artful playfulness to Squid’s music that makes packaging up their sound into a catchy byline seem like an attack on their experimentation.
Squid’s debut LP, A Bright Green Field came out last week. And I haven’t really listened to anything else since.
The album opens with Resolution Square. A paranoid 40-second overlayed recording of bees, church bells and the sounds of a microphone orbiting a room of guitar amps. It’s all a bit weird and uncomfortable.
Pent-up tracks like Narrator explore the breakdown between dream and reality, as well as female imprisonment within male narratives. The Flyover features multi-tracked snippets of friends ruminating over their lives.
There’s a kind of David Byrne-esque element to a lot of Squid’s stuff. Earlier releases like Houseplants lamented the monotony of a stagnant 9-5 suburban existence, with declarations like ‘this is my beautiful house and I can’t afford to live in it’, or ‘everybody’s bored, we’re just too afraid to say’, sounding like an updated Once in a Lifetime for the twenty-first century. Squid posits a subtle social commentary on a culture characterised by risk aversion and an unquestioning devotion to convention.
Given their music’s subject matter, it would be easy for Squid to slip into nauseating pretension. But they don’t. Refusing to take themselves too seriously (I’m pretty sure you can hear them laughing at points on the album), they describe their music as ‘the Coronation Street theme tune played on flutes by angry children’.
Squid is often lumped in with bands like Black Midi, Black Country, New Road and Goat Girl that emerged out of South London venues like The Windmill and the producer, Dan Carey’s Speedy Wunderground label. But there’s a fluidity and liminality that sets Squid apart. Their early tracks like Liquid Light and || combine a Kraut-infused baseline with sardonic art-punk voiceovers, whilst more recent stuff verges on post-rock that often descends into unexpectedly graceful disarray.
Squid’s politics frames their music but doesn’t shape it. Earlier EPs like The Cleaner frantically narrate the Parasite-like plight of modern cleaners without a grating or patronising political performatism. GSK, the second track on A Bright Green Field was written whilst Ollie (lead vocals) passed the GlaxoSmithKline headquarters on the Chiswick flyover into London, reading J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island. Wanting to explore ‘the dystopian nature of Britain’, the song opens with Ollie operatically declaring ‘as the sun sets on the GlaxoKline / Well, it’s the only way that I can tell the time’. There’s something almost Orwellian about Squid’s manufactured landscapes. One where Big Pharma’s totemic presence is glorified to the point of worship.
I read an NPR article recently that described this emerging South London music ‘scene’ as a kind of response to Britain’s ongoing post-Brexit cultural identity crisis. I suppose A Bright Green Field is in many ways exactly that. Tracks like 2010 subtly muse over a culture characterised by flux and suspicion (the paranoid refrain, ‘all these eyes’, plays continuously over the backing track), whilst the melody creates a landscape saturated with nostalgia.
Peel Street – inspired by a surrealist Anna Kavan novel – extends the post-apocalyptic landscape to a satire on social justice in the wake of crises (was there enough to kill the whole damn street? / was there enough to improve your tweet?) , whilst Global Groove exposes the 24-hour news cycle and our chronic desensitised apathy (watch your favourite war on TV, just before you go to sleep / and then your favourite sitcom, watch the tears roll down your cheek).
There’s something quite beautiful in the way in which a lot of the tracks on A Bright Green Field grow without aggressively climaxing or petering out. The album moves from the spiralling heights of Paddling to the softer jazz-soaked spoken-word cynicism of Documentary Filmmaker. And then does exactly the same thing. Over and over again. Subverting the three-and-a-half-minute-love-song, Squid’s eight-minute Pamphlets enters several different spaces and refuses to cut expression short for sake of convenience. Laurie (who largely plays the bass) explained how, ‘some songs are long because you don’t really want to stop a good thing’.
It’s with the same philosophy in mind that coming-of-age tracks like Paddling have been continually tweaked and reworked over a period of years. Bright Green Field is less a static end-product than an organic culmination of on-going ideas and projects. It’s a nice thought that Squid’s songs change and adapt alongside their growth as a band.
Bright Green Field could be seen as unpolished album made by a band which is unsure of their own direction. But that would be missing the point completely. Ollie’s gasping vulnerability is testimony to a generation reckoning with the word as much as their place within it. It’s a relatable anxiety. And one that is a welcome departure from rehashed dronings about lust and heartbreak.
Image: Alex Ingram on Flickr