Robin Williamson: Skirting the River Road

Peter Su

Robin Williamson

Skirting the River Road

Label: ECM
US Release Date: 2003-08-12
UK Release Date: 2003-11-04

With their delicate, acoustic arrangements, they don't sound like the Doors, but, in theory, Robin Williamson and company are trying to do what the Doors also tried to do in their almost unlistenable (until it puts you to sleep) An American Prayer album.

Both that album and this take written poetry, often poetry of a spiritual, eagerly questing nature, and set it to music. Not so much music as in, say, traditional songs, but more like musical accompaniment to the dramatic reading of poetry.

This album, though, has the supreme advantage of drawing lyrics from Walt Whitman, William Blake, and Henry Vaughan, significant -- even great -- poets all. And, lyrically, the combination of Whitman, Blake, and Vaughan (and, okay, two sets of lyrics by Robin Williamson, who apparently couldn't help himself) sure beat the poetic works of one James Douglas Morrison.

Musically, this album, like An American Prayer, suffers from taking itself too seriously. It plays up too much to the High Art urges musicians who themselves aren't great wordsmiths seem compelled to play to when confronted by capitalized Poetry (as opposed to mere song lyrics) (and especially when that Poetry is of a spiritual or mystical nature).

But while the Doors more or less grounded themselves to steady beats while the Lizard King recited his rubbish, the music here weaves in and out of the words. I don't know whether Williamson had anything to do with the cover art, but it does a good job of summing up the music of the album: it shows what seems to be a large body of dark water emerging from the gray fog. Bands of fog float over the water and, farther in the distance, thicken sufficiently to swallow the horizon.

The album's music, instead of stringing together the words of the poetry, weaves in, out, and around the words. Against a disembodied-sounding voice, various wind and string instruments flit in and out, scattering hints of tunes and melodies before disappearing once more into the fog. Like gazing into the foggy water of the album's cover, sounds and images appear briefly from the darkness and then vanish before they taking form. By disappearing so quickly, the listener is left with in the same lurch as a person gazing at the water of the album cover: with so many little sounds and movements, there's definitely the hint of things lurking unseen in the mist. But, without more definition, one is still left either listening to poetry or gazing at the water and being entertained, finally, by one's own imaginings of what lies beyond. Since Williamson and company are technically entertainers, shouldn't they be doing at least some of the work?

While it might be argued that a good, hummable melody would clash with the contemplative subject matter of something like Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry", it should be noted how well good, hummable, even rockin' melodies served the Kinks as they sang about things like the drifting apart of childhood friends ("Do You Remember Walter"), growing obsolete ("Last of the Steam-Powered Trains"), and photos anchoring us against the creeping dread that distant memories and even loved ones were only illusions ("People Take Pictures of Each Other"). And that was only from one album.

Where the lyrics are drawn from some of Whitman's more tranquil free verse, the reluctance to take things too musically straightforward is at least understandable. It could be argued that the intention of the poem is to reflect the unchecked thoughts of the inner consciousness, which admittedly doesn't organize itself along hummable melodies. But, when dealing with something as sparse, metered, and rhymed as Blake's "The Fly", a humbler, hummable folk tune would have worked better than the arty musical accompaniment the poem gets here. And certainly Whitman's own "A Song of Joys", with its calls to "dance, clap hands, exult, shout, skip, leap, float on" and "rise thither with my inebriate soul", could have been better served with music to romp and stomp to.

In those times, the effect from reading the poems, even privately, is considerably more uplifting and energizing than to hear the stretched, slow readings of the same poems set to hushed mood music. Williamson no doubt means well, but when the music you get in your head from reading a poem on the page is stronger than the music you actually hear from your speakers, you know that something's wrong.

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