Like other art forms, music is situated within and expressed from a particular place and time. It might be a quasi-mythical version of the American dream like Southern California, whose expressions range from the expansive 1960s pop of the Beach Boys to the ode to the hedonistic ecstasy of the 1970s in the Eagles’ Hotel California. It is sometimes a cry out of America’s increasingly desolate “heartland” in something like Bruce Springsteen‘s Nebraska or John Mellencamp‘s Scarecrow. It can push the limits of our imagination much like the afro-futurist sounds of Parliament‘s Mothership Connection or perform not-so-subtle forms of cultural appropriation in the sounds of Paul Simon‘s Graceland. Music needs both to root us in the location empathetically while preserving its otherness, an otherness gestured at but never fully captured. It is an invitation into connection and mystery, a tune that beckons us into the more that lies beyond our immediate field of vision.
Island Family, the latest album by Pictish Trail—the stage name for the electro-acoustic psychedelic pop of Johnny Lynch—is both situated on, and in conversation with, the Isle of Eigg, a five-mile-long by a three-mile-wide island off the western coast of Scotland. Lynch has been a resident of this idyllic island with a population of around 100 people for about ten years, but his music career and touring kept him off the island for parts of the year. The Covid-19 pandemic over the past two years necessitated an interruption to that schedule, and Lynch found himself confined to the island for an extended period.
The creative result of this stay is a complex, cacophonous album for these times at the intersection of nature, community, climate change, and the pandemic. Island Family is a demanding listen with its eclectic soup of psychedelic electro-pop, hip hop beats, DIY electronica, distorted industrial metal, and sounds of babbling brooks thrown in for good measure. It is an album born out of deep attention to one’s surroundings and invites immersive attention from the listener.
In a recent interview with The Guardian, Lynch shared the role of the natural surroundings in his creative process. “I realized I wanted to make a record in which I tried to write not about the island, exactly, but with the island,” he recalled. But, this is not some gentle pastoral symphony. Nature has an agency and a danger in this work that the writer cannot tame. Instead, he gives witness to the interaction and relationship between observer and observed, blurring the distinction between the two without collapsing it. In podcast interviews over the past year, Lynch has hinted that music is a language used to reach toward the inexpressible. Island Family entertains this mystery in its multiple manifestations—nature, human connections over time, individuality, and the mystery and tension of humanity as nature.
Attentive to how natural surroundings are marked by the cycle of life and death within its history, the album opens with a nod to the ghosts that haunt our surroundings. The opening track embodies a celebrative gathering of those who have died in the island’s history, even referring to a slaughter of some 400 of the island’s inhabitants in the 16th century, suffocated by fire smoke after being chased into a cave by rival marauders. “In the land of the dead / There is always more to see,” the song declares, hinting at the mysteries that perplex and propel us forward. These transcendent gestures in the track include invitations to offer a prayer “to the trail of this island family”, as the staccato electronic percussive beats give way to a carousel calliope at the song’s close.
Before you can take a breath, the fuzzed, driving bassline of “Natural Successor” propels the listener into the awe of nature, the threat of humanity’s poor stewardship, and the potential dangers that lie with both. Images of flood, fire, and hurricane pulsate with the rhythm as he alludes to how nature’s persistence will ultimately overcome our hubris. “Chaos lines / Round the dead sea / They can’t hold / They won’t bind”. We experience the tremors and the shifting plates—actual and metaphorical—while ever mindful that “the fault is ours”. How nature both envelops and will eventually correctively consume us is visually portrayed in the accompanying playfully serious video filmed on the green mountains of Eigg.
There is an ominous reckoning in “It Came Back” of human turmoil in overgrown wastelands, military occupations, and repressed lies all framed in distorted industrial sounds with pulsating bass lines and hip hop beats. The present climate crisis and its looming repercussions haunt “Nuclear Sunflower Swamp”, forming dreams of “soil and soul”. But there is joy and hope, however fragile, throughout the album. The delightful pop and harmony of “Melody Something” is a hope-filled consideration of the ecstasy of losing track of seasons while at the same time having a heightened awareness of “every single change”. Its pop sensibility is at home in the lineage that runs to it from the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds to the Flaming Lips meditative ode to finitude’s beauty in “Do You Realize?”
The album closes considering the possibility of our redemption within this beautiful, challenging landscape in “Remote Control”. The title is a metaphor for our technological hubris and naive faith in instant change when things get uncomfortable. While the song peels back the costs of our intentional naivete (“You’re the last to reason / Why the season finale / Played out so deadly”), it also holds open reconnection (“Yes, I’m going back to nature / I can feel it travel around my veins / The river runs inside of me / And pours all up in my brains”). The possibility of redemption is elusive but not impossible. It’s just beyond our remote control.
Island Family is not immediately or easily accessible, much like the isle that inspires it. It requires some sustained attention on our part and takes us in surprising directions, at times appearing disjointed or jarring. Its creativity is not formulaic and offers a challenging authenticity. But there are unexpected rewards that emerge from sustained and careful attention to the contours of its landscape.