Sometimes a package arrives that might just take your breath away and, ‘Tangle of Souls’, by Canadian Scott Cook, is one such. As well as the download, CD (or vinyl if you prefer) there is a beautiful 240-page book – packaged with great care, from the specially commissioned endpapers to the photographs, quality paper and the binding. Just the smell of a new book can be an intoxicant and there are no apologies for focussing there initially.
Fortunately, Cook has something to say and the wherewithal to say it in a meaningful and readable way. He has a gift with words, something for a reader to be grateful for given that the initial expectation was of having to wade through reams of poorly written half-baked philosophy. Whilst Cook has strong opinions he prefers to see events in terms of right and wrong rather than left and right. He believes that people have common goals and that when they talk, reason rather than prejudice is likely to prevail. He seems very clear-eyed about his own failings including his alcoholic low-point and the way that he may have mistreated people, particularly when in his cups.
“I was starting to see how I’m riddled with the same pathology that’s sickened our culture: an inability to sit still with oneself, that manifests as an insatiable need for more–more kicks, more sensation, more drinks, more lovers, more travel, more to distract us from our own mortality and the futility of our efforts”.
Another clear statement of his position is in his appraisal of The Beats and their self-indulgent masculine take on the world,
“It was only much later, returning to those books, that the flagrant selfishness, irresponsibility, and worst of all, male chauvinism of the protagonists became clear to me. They really were assholes, who took full advantage of people’s misplaced trust in them”.
Kerouac may have lauded those who, ‘Never yawn or say a commonplace thing’ but as Cook points out he finished, ‘Bitter estranged and finally dead at 47 of a haemorrhage brought on by a lifetime’s drinking”. He might have also have mentioned the fate of Burroughs wife – although apparently no yawns were involved, more likely a surfeit of alcohol?
This is a book that supports a collection of 12 acoustically rendered songs which fall under the roots/folk umbrella. The bulk of the album was recorded in Australia with Cook’s Intercontinental String Band – The She’ll Be Rights. They consist of Liz Frencham on upright bass, harmony vocals and engineering duties; fellow Albertan and long-time collaborator Bramwell Park on banjo, mandolin, guitar, and harmony vocals; Australian fiddlers Esther Henderson and Kat Mear and Aussie dobro player Pete Fidler. Acoustic guitars, banjos and violins provide the dominant sound.
Each chapter of the book covers the background of an individual track and the themes and thoughts involved are complex, multiple and probably more than can be given due space in a short review. Cook’s heroes, quoted widely, include Woody Guthrie and Walt Whitman, whose, ‘Leaves of Grass’, has become something of a text for the ages, adopted in great measure by recent generations of young Americans including various of the Beats. Whitman was perhaps one of the many problematically conflicted that Cook identifies, being seen at times as something of an American imperialist and having questionable attitudes toward the non-white citizens. Nonetheless, both artists are referenced frequently and the vocals and instrumentation are clearly reminiscent of Guthrie. Cook does not have an exceptional voice but it is very listenable and quite affecting when he questions what to save and what to leave on, ‘What to Keep’. Whilst it’s absolutely spot-on in this context and the musical backing is unfussy and appropriate, it is the words that are the focus.
The opening track, ‘Put Your Good Foot in the Road’, is prefaced by Whitman’s, ‘Song of the Open Road’, and relishes, in an up-tempo foot-tapper, the wandering life which Cook feels is not such a risk as might be imagined,
‘You’re learning when your burning bridges, learning when you fall / If you don’t dance ungracefully then you won’t dance at all’.
Whilst Cook has been very much a wanderer, a troubadour as he would have it, he is now apparently settled and in a long term relationship – something of a culmination of his itinerant life.
‘Leave a Light On’ is introduced by a line or two from Cohen’s, ‘You Got me Singing’. Each track on the album is prefaced by a pertinent lyric or quotation in the book. Cook’s attempt at a love song is more convincing than most, generally avoiding cliché whilst he hopes that his partner will, ‘Leave a light on in her heart’. This seems an image of literal guidance but also a request that he be given space in that special place.
‘Say Can You See’, perhaps lays out Cook’s creed most clearly. The song, with a title echoing, ‘Star-Spangled Banner’, asks,
‘Hear me out for a second, this ain’t a partisan song / It ain’t about right and left, it’s about right and wrong’.
Cook admits that his neighbour and he may fall into the Redneck / Hippie divide but that each if push comes to shove, would help the other. Here he references Cohen’s song, ‘Democracy’, which he feels presages a quiet revolution of the best kind that many people are ready for. ‘Democracy is coming to the USA’! Unfortunately, the current president seems to be pushing it in the opposite direction.
There are some non- original songs in this collection. ‘Passin’ Through’, was written in the late ’40s by academic Richard Blakeslee and Cook adds some of his own words about Chilean musician, Victor Jara, murdered during the coup. The book discusses the disgraceful side of American foreign policy in South America – none of it supposition and evidenced and acknowledged by Congressional Committee in the case of the Chilean coup engineered by the CIA and bankrolled by corporations. It’s all there in Cook’s book with cross-references aplenty.
The second non-original is Scott Dunbar’s, ‘Why am I Leaving my Home Again’. Whilst wanderlust has been coveted elsewhere, an A. A. Milne quotation offers a salient thought as an introduction, ‘How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard’, and Dunbar’s song both entreats someone to ask him to stay whilst declaring, unconvincingly, that no one is capable – a telling juxtaposition of emotions.
The album concludes with, ‘Tangle of Souls’, and, ‘Right to Roam’, an instrumental. The former celebrates the rich stew that is humanity and the lives we lead. The latter has no vocal but does have a section of prose that discusses the history of access to the land. Cook does exhibit a degree of accurate knowledge about the Kinder Trespass and it’s warming to see that acknowledged. As is often the case he picks a suitable humourous line, this time from Woody Guthrie, in, ‘This Land is Your Land‘.
‘The other day when I went walking / I saw a sign there, said ‘no trespassing’ / But on the other side, it didn’t say nothing / That side was made for you and me’.
This is a rich and varied multimedia offering which seeks to confront issues of personal and collective responsibility and the actions that flow from them. Cook offers no simple solutions and he admits it may be all too late in a decline that is increasingly exponential. He is clear that there are things that can be rectified and corrected. He offers views that may not appeal to all – that the woke movement alienates as much as it may engage and that blind polarisation to left and right is no solution. It is often the case that one reads about the sincerity of an artist – based often on scant evidence and sometimes with proof to the contrary – and how it is apparently experienced by reviewers and listeners. Yet there is something very appealing about the conclusions that Cook makes, that he needed to change his life, that there is error to both left and right and that he is a long way from knowing all the answers.
‘Tangle of Souls’, can be thoroughly enjoyed as a well-written collection of literate songs that echo much of the legacy of Woody Guthrie. Additionally, they are augmented with a well written beautiful book that can be downloaded or bought as part of a more physical package. Chasing up the references Cook offers and reading around the subject might keep you interested for hours There is an ethical issue about, ‘stuff’, something about which the singer has a great deal to say. The download is the ethical way to go – the physical copy something that is a real pleasure to possess!