English singer-songwriter Mr. Alec Bowman knows a thing or two about appearances and how they often differ from reality. As a professional photographer and filmmaker, he is attuned to the varied ways we interpret the world visually and he has a keen ear for verbal and musical nuances. These skills are combined to mesmerising effect on his new album, I Used To Be Sad & Then I Forgot.
A quick glance at the cover might give you some small clue as to what lies within. The typeface, the sunlit meadow, the hazy close-ups of buttercups: these are all redolent of a particular type of album, maybe one of those lost pastoral folk masterpieces of the late 60s or early 70s. And while Bowman is certainly no stranger to a sweet melody or a soft-focus soundscape, that is only a fraction of the story. These eleven songs occupy a world that is profoundly personal and at times, extremely dark.
It is Bowman’s first release under his own name, and accordingly its songs are autobiographical, drawn from the deep well of lived experience. In Bowman’s words, ‘it’s all me’, and while it is transfixed by moments of astonishing beauty, its overall mood, in the words of its creator, is ‘angry, fragile, redemptive.’
Above all it is an honest statement, as close to the bone as it is possible for a work of art to be. Think the literary soul-searching of Nick Cave without the gothic melodrama, Leonard Cohen’s knack of alchemising the emotional pain that often characterises human relationships, or even the raw personal trauma of the last two Mount Eerie albums.
But like the best songs of Cohen or Cave, Bowman’s sad miniatures are frequently shot through with pitch-black humour or surprising and often optimistic turns of phrase. Hand In Hand gleefully lists the various ways in which the singer doesn’t want to die while still managing to be the sincerest of love songs, and Never The End Of The World turns a well-worn platitude into a genuine, wise message of hope.
Songs like Safe Mode – which compares people to the mobile phones that have started to take over their lives – and Physics & Form are distinctly contemporary in their detail, while The Event Horizon Of You makes something tender and beautiful out of the general theory of relativity. My Kind Of Chaos sets its turbulent theme against a calm counterpoint of acoustic guitar and examines the paradox of how disorder and harmony can coexist in a loving relationship.
And musically too, the attention to detail is striking. This is a far cry from your average singer-songwriter fare: witness the dark, almost spooky effects that underpin the melody of A Ditch Worth Dying For, the detached and otherworldly organ that plays a snippet of The Old Rugged Cross at the album’s mid-point intermission, or the muted clarinets that haunt Leaves. The production – courtesy of Josienne Clarke – is quietly stunning. Ultimately, for all its darkness, I Used To Be Sad & Then I Forgot is a redemptive, positive experience. Bowman has gone through a lot to get to the point where he felt he can release these songs into the world, and it shows. Desperation might have been the driving force of this album, but its message is one of hopeful defiance. It represents an ending of one period of its creator’s life, and a new beginning. It’s not about forgetting pain, but about claiming it, and recognising that over time it can be crystalised into something that contains a kernel of truth and beauty. As Bowman says, his songs are ‘scar tissue on my skin, owned by me, worn on the outside, and if you’re going to judge me, then do it with an open hand in the cold light of a future day, rather than under the cover of a darkness past.’