You be words and I’ll be music
Ain’t you heard that’s how they do it
You’re a poem when you’re on your own
I’ll try not to get in your way
But I’ve all the pretty poems I have known
Baby, you give me something to say
—Sondre Lerche, “Words and Music”
Poetry and music can be used as two different ways of saying the same thing. When I read a poem about any given topic—say, heartache—my reaction is usually different then when I listen to a song or album on the same topic. This may have to do with the different physiological processes involved in each activity, but attempting to reduce emotional events to biology is almost always unsatisfactory. If I feel like listening to a record as opposed to reading a book (I find it difficult to do both at times), I just feel it. There’s no real reason why.
Unlike me, some particularly deft composers (in this case Tin Hat) have a unique ability to merge these two art forms. Of course, poetry and vocal music aren’t far apart to begin with. The great epic poems were almost always accompanied by song when read in their time. Some of contemporary music’s best lyricists have the skills of great poets. In reading lyrics, they often only work as a part of a song rather than as standalone works of poetry, but even in those cases there is a natural poetic rhythm to lyrics that, when done right, carries a seriousness that’s wholly literary. For the rain is a handsome animal, Tin Hat have taken on a very serious literary challenge of their own: crafting 17 musical adaptations of the poetry of E. E. Cummings. Tin Hat, a group known for musical skill both virtuosic and organic, face a pretty lofty obstacle right from the get-go: How can they express their instrumental prowess without drowning out Cummings’ poetic language?
The success of the rain is a handsome animal is that they avoid that problem entirely. Most of these songs feel so natural that it’s hard to believe they weren’t written as lyrics first. One of the most memorable moments here is “buffalo bill,” where one of Cummings’ most wry lines (“Jesus he was a handsome man / And what I want to know is / How do you like your blueeyed boy Mr. Death?”) takes on an entirely different life. Very wisely, the musicians here decided not to handcuff themselves to the text. None of these songs read like a predictable take on the source poems; the music flows naturally with the words. The only real flaw with these interpretations is how many there are; at 17 tracks, this runs a little long, and while there’s little here that’s bad, some editorial oversight could have made this a more powerful listen. As it stands, the album tends to require you come back to it in several different listens. By making Cummings’ poetry the primary subject, Tin Hat necessarily require the listener to do some reading, whether to see how they came up with these compositions or if the listener could see a different musical interpretation for the words. the rain is a handsome animal is a feat in its successful union of poetry and music without the dilution of either one, but since the source material comes from such a well-respected poet, one must also look outward to the primary sources.
As far as virtuosity is concerned, Tin Hat continue to impress. With this being their sixth studio effort, they’ve had plenty of room to mature as performers, and this is undoubtedly their most assured work yet. A refined, beautiful Parisian quality underlies many of the songs; the two openers, “a cloud on a leaf” and the title track, are intricate, jazz-inflected pieces that carry all the grace associated with the City of Lights. The latter song is especially impressive, and in a surprising turn it’s the best song here despite its wordlessness (It’s one of the few instrumental cuts present). Tin Hat’s style is like the union of a classical chamber quartet and a jazz-fusion group: elegant, technically uncompromising, and at times blistering in its fret-burning. This incredible skill alone, however, isn’t what makes this their best recording yet. The fact that I came away from the rain is a handsome animal both impressed by the musicianship I just heard and with a deeper understanding of a great poet is a testament to the high quality of this release. Cummings may be a great who can stand alone on the merit of his words, but Tin Hat have given him incredible things to say.