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Published on April 17th, 2019 | by voxx

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Rustin Man – Drift Code

Sixteen years later, Talk Talk’s Paul Webb reanimates for a second bout of English melancholia…

The circumstances of a recording’s creation – even the time it took to make – is often encoded in its grooves. Consider Please Please Me and picture The Beatles, seizing the tiny window of studio time they’ve been allotted, sore throats be damned. Absorb the ghostly vacancies of There’s A Riot Goin’ On, its master tapes worn thin as spaced-out Sly Stone endlessly wiped and redubbed. Revel in the vast impressionist universe of Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden, built note by note over painstaking months, an accumulation and rejection of everything not-perfect until only perfection remained.

But if there’s another category – of albums that appear oblivious to the contingencies of their invention – Drift Code is in there. Its creator, Paul Webb, played bass in Talk Talk and debuted his Rustin Man alter-ego in 2002 with Out Of Season, a haunting, Nick Drake-influenced collaboration with singer Beth Gibbons of Portishead. Soon after, he began work on a follow-up: aggregated, instrument by instrument, at home in a barn in Essex. There were constant interruptions – for parenting, and the noise from nearby Stansted Airport, too loud to filter out. Friends dropped by to add a note here, a note there: Talk Talk drummer Lee Harris on bamboo jews harp; Mark ‘Snowboy’ Cotgrove on percussion and ‘Telstar’ clavioline; James Yorkston on clarinet; Webb’s kids, Sam and Grace, contributing backing vocals. Sixteen years later, it is finished. But if you’d been told that it was recorded in a week, by a live ensemble, you’d believe it.

Albums made over long periods can feel episodic, rarely complete. Often, they don’t come out at all – their makers moving on to other projects, having lost faith or interest. But Drift Code sounds like a single moment – albeit frozen and stretched, encompassing many moments. There’s not even a style to anchor it somewhere in time – pop and rock and jazz and folk seem suspended in aspic, while Webb’s rheumy voice recalls Robert Wyatt (many of Webb’s ‘r’s are ‘w’s), sometimes a mightily fatigued Bowie, with a touch of the teary bleat of his old bandmate Mark Hollis.

Webb’s previous recordings didn’t always trumpet a songwriter in the classical sense. He is credited as co-writer on a number of early Talk Talk songs (although BMI’s publishing paperwork demurs) but not on the band’s landmarks: The Colour Of Spring and Spirit Of Eden. His fine pair of mid-’90s albums with Lee Harris, as .O.Rang, suggested a continuation of their old band’s soundscaping aspects, with added world music strains and increasing dance leanings. Even the songs of Out Of Season failed to portend the original voice that emerges on Drift Code.

Rather than a genre per se, that voice belongs to a broad tradition of English melancholia – of sepia tones and sweet sadness. In opener ‘Vanishing Heart’, the narrator celebrates the end of a toxic relationship (“it feels so good to be alive!”), but the funereal, slightly self-mocking mood tells another story – of lost time that this closure will not reclaim. Webb talks of all his narrators as a cast of characters, yet they tend to share a rueful, stocktaking quality. ‘Judgement Train’ is a kind of clattering Nick Cave/Tom Waits-ish blues. On said train, someone plays cards with God; he thinks he has the whip hand, but there’s a twist in the (suspiciously scaly, arrow-tipped) tail. Like many of Webb’s protagonists, drifting on the tide rather than steering their vessels, his agency is less than he thought.

Webb’s soundworld is also deceptive. ‘Brings Me Joy’ has a homespun, old-timey feel, but rather than the innocent high-spirits of the Cab Calloway records Webb cites as an influence, it’s the haunted dancehall quality of Fats Waller soundtracking David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Ancient keyboard sounds and skeins of angelic backing vox add extra poignancy to a melody that combines the sadness and ecstasy of release. “When they weave their words/Round that golden tune,” moans Webb, “It makes me feel so old/Like the ending has begun.”

Time travels on Drift Code like a stop-motion movie. There are older characters here, singing about aging (“Winter’s slipping into springtime/Left me with scars on my face”). Old-fashioned lingo like “Oh silvery moon” and “yonder planes” adds to the sense of temporal dislocation. Lilting, 5/4 fantasia ‘Our Tomorrows’ acknowledges that said tomorrows are finite; we’re just trying to “delay our days”, to “stall [our] fade”. In ‘The World’s In Town’, an aching, deliciously mysterious Wyatt-Bowie tour de force, the narrator is transcending the Earth, becoming “part of the old Milky Way”. There’s no need to cry – he sounds like he’s fine up there. Well, maybe.

‘All Summer’ ends the album exquisitely – with a gorgeous melody set against soft piano, acoustic guitar and something reminiscent of Roy Budd’s Get Carter harpsichord. What some might reckon to be the one significant weakness of Drift Code – that Webb is not a conventionally beauteous singer – is once more a strength. He sounds a bit wobbly, not quite in control of his pitch or emotions; then again, he’s passing a torch, from an older generation to a younger, and the moment is charged: “It’s all right to say you hate me/Tire me out and call me dated”. It’s the album’s last time-trick, an entire childhood shrunk into a season, because from this perspective that’s how short it seems: “[You’ve been] Growing up in the grass/All summer.”

Webb says that, with the material he has left over, we shouldn’t have to wait 16 years for another Rustin Man record. On this evidence, that will be a boon; but it’s hard not to wonder if this is a spell that can be cast twice, so delicately is Drift Code poised between worlds mundane and magical. Perhaps you actually need 16 years to pull off something like that. Time will tell.

- By Jake White


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