Having relentlessly complained about having little time to write here, I find myself with the unusual luxury of a long weekend and a few extra days of leisure before my journey to Fife – and in typical style I’m finding all kinds of diversionary activities to prevent needing to actually do any of the things I ought to. Having managed to spend yesterday speeding around the country largely without purpose, and today idly breaking and fixing this computer more than once, one common theme has emerged – and that’s the soundtrack to my procrastination. It strikes me as I write this that I Build Collapsible Mountains have achieved the unique distinction of appearing in both of the Songs Heard On Fast Trains end of year lists to date, despite never getting an article to themselves. Whether this is down to my inefficiency, bad timing, or the peculiarly low-key approach to releasing music employed by Luke Joyce, its very clearly an oversight which needs to be corrected with the release of this new selection of songs.
This, the third collection of IBCM material, develops the simple premise which Joyce established on “A Month of Lost Memories” and last year’s “The Spectator and The Act”, delivering perhaps even more emotionally charged narratives via sparse instrumentation focused on his acoustic guitar playing and underplayed, sometimes almost spoken vocals. This is of course a world away from the massive, near-orchestral post rock compositions of The Gothenburg Address where Joyce‘s talents have previously been put to work, but there is easily as much drama and tension bound up in these simple but often battle-scarred vignettes. The title track opens proceedings, beginning with gently strummed downbeat chords which support Joyce‘s sometimes laconic but always enigmatic voice. As he almost whispers “this will be my last song for you” there are hints of American Music Club at their damaged, intoxicated best in the delivery. Notably briefer than the sometimes extended tracks on the two previous releases, things shift a little more uptempo if not lyrically upbeat on the appropriately swirling “Carousel”. This one is for all of us who’ve ever been in, or perhaps more frustratingly watched from the sidelines those relationships which endlessly repeat and recycle the same barren ground. There are points in these songs which are almost too graphically, personally harrowing and there is a particularly voyeuristic element to “The Method Actor” where a refrain of “with skin pale and hope lost/you burst like nails in me” is painfully near the bone. Echo-laden percussion is drafted in to sustain the fragile tune through to its ending, as if it too might just expire without urgent assistance.
Some of the most poignant moments here are the simplest and lowest in fidelity. With just a gentle picked guitar and a raw vocal echoing in an empty room “An Exit” is briefly, quietly gorgeous – an unravelling tale of uncomfortable conclusions with “not a word spoken for days now“. But there is some wonderfully complex, proficient guitar work here too, especially in the playful and explorartory end section of “Stressing for Midnight” which is a breathlessly dizzy relief in the midst of the record, with delivery not dissimilar in style to RM Hubbert. “Double Dares” is a hark back to more expansive, traditional structures and songwriting, and as such is a reminder of the brace of collections of music Joyce has already released under the IBCM moniker – both like this one quietly, almost apologetically slipping out into the world. Detailing a range of painful trade-offs typified by the line “your beauty is the punch I take“, there is a perversely gleeful turn to the melody and even a tinkling of mocking glockenspiel. And then the realisation hits that this is about as backhandedly positive as “Songs From That Never Scene” becomes. But things soon return to type, and my personal highlight “Promenades” is something very special – a bass rhythm beaten out on a single string and flecks of sparkling guitar mark out a sparse, gentle and lovelorn lament, charting the minutiae of a long and convoluted relationship. Joyce starts already battered and broken and slips further from our grasp as the song unfolds. Then when all appears utterly beyond redemption, the track closes with a short burst of joyously complex, almost flamenco guitar playing.
As the album slips away with the repeated refrain of “lets go to the sea” which closes “Swan Song”, it seems Luke Joyce and IBCM are at something of a crossroads. With The Gothenburg Address emerging from a couple of years on hiatus, it’s possible that this dark, lyrically rich outlet for his songwriting may possibly take a back seat once again. Whilst making us choose between these two fine projects seems deeply unfair, “Songs From That Never Scene” sits as a testament to some of the most vivid, emotionally intelligent songwriting I’ve heard in a very long time.
You can buy “Songs From That Never Scene” exclusively via the I Build Collapsible Mountains Bandcamp page, and its predecessors can be found via US label Burning Buildings Recordings. Luke Joyce is currently in the midst of a number of Scottish live dates, taking in Ediburgh’s Pleasance Theatre on April 11th, The Captain’s Rest in Glasgow on April 12th and Dundee Doghouse on April 29th.