When music is combined with spoken word, every aspect has to line up: tone, timing, and delivery are key. Duncan Speakman and Tineke De Meyer thread the needle on The House Was Alright, underlining the most banal subject ~ the weather ~ and making it thrilling.
De Meyer’s voice is not always straightforward, but often looped, stuttered and echoed. Speakman creates a bank of drones, producing a feeling of foreboding. “The sun is cold and wet today,” begins De Meyer, repeating the phrase as if unable to proceed beyond it. “Old Refrain,” ironically, is about the inability to talk about the weather as a reflection of fracture. One wants to connect, yet resists. The gap between weather dialogue and inner turmoil is seemingly insurmountable. How does one get from here to there? “Teach me to talk about the weather like you do.” Electronic glissandos drop like bombs. Then it rains, just as rain becomes the subject of De Meyer’s poetry. “The BBC weather forecast speaks of thick cloud and light winds: cloud, not clouds.” The incongruence sparks a new round of musing.
“Being Hungry” is inspired by the lockdown and Jonathan Livingston Seagull. The track imagines “a small group of people devoted to just walking,” a metaphor for our current time. We may be sheltering in place, walking around our apartments and houses, virtually nowhere; or walking without purpose, neither for exercise nor to reach a goal: plodding through life, until “daylight bursts through” again. The British love for walking is turned on its head, in the same manner as talk about the weather.
After winter, reports De Meyer, “the storm had moved inside of us.” The track concludes in a field of vast uncertainty. The people try to talk again, but conversation has devolved into a series of questions, like “talking to someone who had been silent for a thousand years.” The words say, “We were actually alright;” but we doubt it. “No Cold Can Hold” is a natural continuance of the dual theme, folding in the topic of climate change, as all weather talk must do these days. Slow, dark and elegant, the piece wraps around to the start: “It made me think of a walk I once made on a frozen lake. On that frozen lake even the waves were gripped in mid-air.” But horses are frozen there too, “their heads sticking out.” The apocalyptic image produces shivers. “Someone once told me we are all ice wanting to be water.” Beneath the words, waves knock against wood.
A “snap” in the final piece leads to the album’s most potent moment: a pause followed by a surge, as the dark notes rush in. Is this where we are headed? Would we be willing to shut down the economy to save the earth, as we were to save ourselves? The question lingers in the air. By withholding answers, Speakman and De Meyer prompt us to speak, even as language is breaking down. (Richard Allen)