David Turpin’s first album, the stark, secretive The Sweet Used-to-be, was among the best-reviewed Irish debuts of 2008. Now he returns with Haunted! Earning its exclamation mark with 11 boundlessly inventive, sparklingly melodic songs, Turpin’s sophomore offering is the Oz to his debut’s Kansas.
This is a record in love with the possibilities of pop music, taking the listener on a ghost train ride through an eerie interior expanse populated by dancing skeletons, magical animals and celestial bodies. The conventional subject of carnal desire is conspicuous by its absence, and yet the world of the album remains a genuinely tender-hearted one, as the excision of the libidinous allows other forms of love – platonic, commemorative, anthropomorphic – to ripple to the surface. The result has the conceptual rigor of Laurie Anderson, the open-hearted experimentation of Arthur Russell, and the oddly soothing spookiness of The Cure.
Drawing upon a set of songs largely whipped up in eerie isolation at the foot of Co. Carlow’s Blackstairs Mountains, Turpin embarked on an 18-month recording process that saw him piece the album together at his own home and in a succession of other recording environments. The end result is seamless, bound together by Turpin’s own meticulous production and luscious co-production and mix work by Stephen Shannon.
Throughout, endlessly inventive settings are located for Turpin’s singular gossamer murmur. He floats – alternately icily processed and affectingly exposed – above a dizzying dreamscape with surprises at every turn. Perhaps most unexpectedly of all, he has let his fascination for early hip-hop and modern R&B run riot with a block party’s worth of strutting drums, disco fingersnaps and live percussion. According to Turpin, “It made sense to bring the rhythms to the forefront, as the album is on a spooky theme, and rhythm is the skeleton of a song”.
Immediate standouts include the infernally catchy single ‘The Bone Dance’, the surprisingly beefy ‘Heart-beep’, and the indescribable ‘Dorothy Gale’, a Muchkin-led electro gospel congregation unlike anything on Earth. Elsewhere, the velvety opener ‘Cowards Bend the Knee’ updates the sound of Turpin’s debut with a fresh arsenal of layered vocals and live instrumentation, while ‘King of Swords’ embellishes the cavernous click-thump of R&B with Arthurian allusions and medieval flourishes. The greatest sonic extremes of the album are represented by ‘The Skeleton Key’ – which corkscrews into the memory with savagely intricate sliced vocals and an immediately memorable voodoo taunt of a chorus – and ‘Hymn to the Lighthouse’, a startlingly delicate closing song built around a gentle rhythmic pulse created from the crunch of seashells underfoot. The emotional peaks, meanwhile, are the numinous ‘Melmoth’ – in which a lone vocal builds to a rousing mini-epic co-starring the hounds of hell – and the shimmering showtune ‘Nightlights’, in which Turpin squares up to the loss of a loved one with grit and empathy.
A stellar firmament of contributors appear in support, with Conor O’Brien of Villagers guesting on the cryptic ‘Polar Song’ (and playing guitar on four further songs) while Cathy Davey materialises on the mysterious and expansive ‘The Red Elk’, a narrative song about a pact with an otherworldly animal. The album’s swelling strings come from Cora Venus Lunny, who contributed up to 60 layers of violin and viola apiece to seven songs.
Haunted! is a record that has no time for blustering state-of-the-world addresses or ersatz singer-songwriter confessionals, and yet it is as personal a statement as anybody will make in pop this year. As Turpin tells it, “The record takes place in an imaginary world, and what could be more intimate than revealing something that’s wholly imaginary?”
David Turpin and his live band will launch Haunted! with a free, invitation-only performance at the Hugh Lane Municipal Art Gallery, Dublin, on October 9th, 2009. Turpin will be the first pop musician ever to play such a show in the gallery’s Sculpture Hall. This is a limited capacity event so RSVP to email@example.com if you would like to attend.
For more tracks and information check out his myspace page here.