Long awaited return is a class contribution to their oeuvre.
It has been a long wait for new music from Midlake – nine long years since ‘Antiphon‘, long enough to make even the most hardened fan doubt whether we’d ever hear from the Texan masters of folk-proggy-Americana again. And if we did, would they be able to hit the heights of ‘Trials of Van Occupanther‘, ‘The Courage of Others‘ and, yes, ‘Antiphon‘ again? That’s a tough trio to follow. And indeed on the first few listens there is maybe a sense of anti-climax, is this the Midlake of old? However ‘For the Sake of Bethel Woods‘ is the very definition of a slow burner, persevere and there’s as much to celebrate as there ever was – this is the same Midlake, but, like Van Occupanther, looking to the future whilst looking to the past, rekindling hope whilst hinting at doubt and despair. It’s a concept album of sorts, but there are perhaps two or more concepts running at the same time and it’s difficult to say which is the dominant one across the record.
Bethel Woods was, of course, the site of the 1969 Woodstock Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music – and there’s a definite feeling through the album of questioning how the heady excitement and optimism for the future associated with that gathering came to fall away over the years. And, perhaps more importantly, how it can be regained. However there’s also a sense of Midlake questioning their own existence as a band – in the first line of opener ‘Commune‘ Eric Pulido sings “I’ve been away now far too long, lost and alone with no communion” in what can surely be read as a comment on the band’s lengthy absence. This prayer like introduction leads into ‘Bethel Woods‘ which is all tripping percussion and complex beats driven along by a piano riff as the getting back to Nature spirit of Woodstock is invoked “I could get rid of it all for the sake of the Bethel Woods / to a time and a place where peacefulness once stood / gather the women and children / leave our homes and our buildings.” It’s a gloriously sparking folk-rock song.
There’s more complicate timings on ‘Glistening‘ which studiously attempts to avoid easy incorporation as it blossoms with percussive riffs, earworm repeated keyboard and acoustic guitar lines and dreamy psychedelia. It provides a really disconnected moment, at once seductive and unnerving. For a more straight-ahead rock song in the style of ‘Roscoe‘ or ‘Head Home‘ we have to wait for ‘Feast of Carrion‘ which slyly picks over the bones of a corrupted Crosby Stills and Nash title – this is more ‘Carry On‘ than dining on roadkill, there’s even an echo of a CSN style acoustic break leavened with an interjection of Tim Smith style flute. Looking forward, whilst looking back. ‘Meanwhile…‘ mines that Seventies rock feel that Midlake are so adept at finding new gems in, although the subject matter again hints at band problems from a decade ago: “Then he came to me in a dream / Did it so vividly Offering just one plea, simply / Then fell out of the scene /I fell to my knees / Crying don’t ever leave.”
There’s more double meaning on ‘Noble‘, which was inspired by the birth of drummer McKenzie Smith’s infant son Noble: not that you’d know this as it has the air of a tender love ballad. Which of course it is, but a familial and parental love. Songs such as ‘Dawning‘ return, it seems, to the opening conceit – the double referencing of the Aquarian Age and also, perhaps, the band’s rebirth following the departure of Tim Smith prior to ‘Antiphon‘ – “morning and dawn is on the rise / a feeling of malaise continues to deprive / all he ever wanted was a purpose to be known / waiting for epiphany.” Perhaps, and with that reading the following ‘The End‘ and closer ‘Of Desire‘ continue to echo that double meaning, with ‘The End‘ personifying the death of a dream as the absence of a mystical father figure whilst ‘Of Desire‘ returns to the hymnal feel of the album opener, closing a circle with an optimistic look to the future.
Is ‘For the Sake of Bethel Woods‘ consciously or subconsciously Midlake’s ‘Wish You Were Here‘? A belated coming to terms with the departure of Tim Smith? There’s enough ambiguity to suggest that’s possible – although Midlake were always an ambiguous band as they explored their big concepts. So, perhaps it is an extended plea to get back to more politically and emotionally progressive times – looking back to look forward. Either way it is an album that grows and grows, with self-referencing to older albums abounding as an additional layer of teasing of the listener. Here’s hoping we don’t need to wait for a change of decade for the next instalment from one of Americana’s most distinctive and genre defining bands.
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