If ever a debut album captured a band’s essence, it was British Sea Power’s debut. From the knowing irony of the album title itself: British Sea Power’s Classic: The Decline of British Sea Power, to the artwork, to the remarkable genre-strafing music contained within its 11 songs and 47 minutes, BSP’s debut deserves a place in any great British debut albums list. The album is now being re-released in a handsome 12th anniversary package, while the band is playing the album in full to commemorate the occasion. It’s a fitting way to mark an enduring legacy.
When you look back at classic albums it’s hard to remove the weight of history (personal and of a wider context) from any process of reassessment. Albums carry an undeniable significance to people on a personal level, because they capture a time in people’s lives, an emotional bond that can never be sundered or re-written. Furthermore, when albums are a success, whether on a cult critical level or a mainstream commercial level, they begin to pick up their own moss pretty much from day one. This was always true of the Rolling Stones, but generally when you look back at an album after 10, 20 or even 50 years, social context, personal resonance and other people’s re-evaluation, particularly in the prism of how fashionable a band may be at any given moment, all factor into any album’s ongoing reputation. That reputation is a living thing, constantly being updated and revised; albums, like personal histories can suffer at the hands of their most vocal critics or their most fashionable supporters.
There’s something special about debut albums too, the gloss and shine and sheer exuberance of a new band delivering their first unfettered musical statement; bold, brash, fresh. Later, fans begin to divide over whether the sophomore effort was too much like the first, too different from the first, or a hundred shades of grey in-between. Never again does the fresh sheen of newness work its magic for a band.
British Sea Power emerged with a slightly arty/oddball reputation that stemmed mainly from their-foliage-heavy live shows and tendency to put men in very large bear costumes on stage for their long, krautrock-based wig-outs that usually concluded their gigs. You call it oddball, I call it rock’n’roll. You didn’t have to be highbrow, odd or an art student to get it, you just needed to like post-punk music with hefty surges of melodic appeal, lyrics that celebrated the best of Blighty and embraced the pastoral, replete with references to writers and adventurers and jammed with interesting, slightly hallucinogenic historical tidbits. The Nazis abuse of camouflage – check. A wild ode to Dostoyevsky – check. A song about a Trojan horse – check. British Sea Power have always been like a boy’s own adventure book best enjoyed with the salt air in your face – and a hearty serving of magic mushrooms.
It’s a bit of a treat to re-listen to Decline twelve years after its initial release. Perhaps because it’s never really been away from the turntable for any long period of time, perhaps because it was built on timeless musical foundations, it hasn’t aged. Not for Decline the merciless brickbats of fashion. It was and is a cool album, but mainly by virtue of its utter disinterest in being cool. The opening choral half minute of Men Together Today serves as a now-iconic prelude to the unleashed energy that follows. No sooner has it faded out than the madcap bassline of Apologies to Insect Life emerges, incessant, dangerous, coiled. Yann sings – yelps – over guitar with the unleashed punk energy of youth. A longstanding moshpit favourite, the song has lost none of its verve in the last decade. Fyodor is indeed still the most attractive man. That song, and the one which follows. Favours in the Beetroot Fields, best capture the drive of BSP’s early work, the furious hornet charge of the band in its earliest incarnation.
It’s an album that gradually distills its essence and its melody as it goes on. The early moments are brash, the later moments reflective, but all coalesce beautifully into a grand example of that hoary old art form, the long player. And the album peaks and plateaus at a level of high brilliance for five songs, starting with the evil-perverting-nature horror of Something Wicked and ending with the anthemic swell of Carrion. In between those two are the raw, melodic, charged magnificence of Remember Me, perhaps the band’s best ever harnessing of fury and melody, and the hypnotic, hissing, sea wash of Fear of Drowning, not to mention the wonderful, almost forgotten, and never played Lonely, a song that by the band’s own reckoning they can’t really remember how to play. Best of all though, to these ears at least, is Carrion, a song with lyrics steeped in the romanticism of the English poets, timeless, anthemic and transcendental. Brilliantine mortality indeed.
The sheer exuberant brilliance of the album’s centre perhaps detracts from its latter third, which is unfortunate, because both Blackout and A Wooden Horse capture the band’s whimsical melodic side perfectly – a side which was fully expressed on the band’s somewhat underrated second album, Open Season – and serve as handy bookends to the album’s rambling epic, Lately, a song that goes some way to capturing the wandering, experimental, elemental live side of the band.
Since the release of Decline, British Sea Power have become something of an institution, occasionally edging into the charts, or onto Springwatch, but always releasing albums that keep them on the peripheries of mainstream success. Indeed, if they never again achieve the heady mix of critical and fan approval that they garnered with their remarkable debut, it won’t be for a lack of quality material released in the intervening period.
From the sleek and memorable Do You Like Rock Music? with its odes to European inclusiveness (Waving Flags), magnificent seabirds (The Great Skua) and papal maleficence (No Lucifer) to the eclectic mix of their last album release (Machineries of Joy), via an appropriate sideline as naturalist documentary soundtrackers, the band has continued to beguile and challenge, and most of all, to entertain. That Decline remains such a fondly remembered album is undoubtedly through a combination of debut album dynamism and the fond nostalgia all listeners harbour for old musical loves. But as an album, with and without personal nostalgia or revisionism, The Decline – no, the Classic Decline of British Sea Power – stands as a contemporary great, one which shows not the least sign of ageing, and will surely reward intrepid listeners for ages to come.