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Review: Death Songbook with Brett Anderson, Gwenno and the Paraorchestra

30 Oct 2022 5 minute read
Brett Anderson Death Songbook Llais 2022 WMC

Jon Gower

The poet T.S. Eliot, who wasn’t short of a word or two said that the facts of life were basically ‘birth, copulation and death’ but in the world of pop music they mainly concentrate on getting it on.

Indeed, there have been some periods when it’s been possible to believe that pretty much all songs are about sex, and furthermore they’re all sung by Barry White.

So it came as some surprise to see a whole show called ‘Death Songbook’, prompting one to think about the dearth of pop songs about death and its departures.

Admittedly there have been songs which talk about someone else’s death, such as ‘Leader of the Pack’ where the unfortunate motorcyclist doesn’t rev off into the sunset, or the mawkishly brilliant ‘In the Living Years’ by Mike and the Mechanics which basically advocates telling people you love them before you peg it but there aren’t that many that spring to mind.

Oh wait. There’s ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper.’Slipped Away.’ The list goes on.

As it turned out ‘Death Songbook ’ wasn’t entirely what it said on the tin, with a fair old sprinkling of rather catchy Suede songs such as their B-side single ‘He’s Dead’ thrown into the mix, which pleased the many fans of the band who were there to enjoy Brett Anderson’s velvety voice and assured performance.

But, sticking to the theme, the show appropriately kicked off with Echo and the Bunnymen’s ‘Killing Time’, with Brett, dressed suitably in black seeming to have a whale of a time belting it out.

And there were some Suede songs that did look at the end of days and beyond, such as ‘The Next Life,’ being the first song Anderson wrote about death, where the lyrics take you to Worthing of all places, where you can end up selling ice-creams, and at the end of the pier to boot.

It is a song written about the death of the singer’s own life, adding extra scoops of poignancy and pain.

The songs, vibrantly and intelligently arranged, were performed by The Paraorchestra under the ebullient direction of Charles Hazelewood, who stressed that these weren’t cover versions of ‘belting tunes’ but rather ‘re-clothings’ as he put it.

For some of the rockier tunes, Anderson pointed out that you’d normally expect to hear more guitars and less woodwind but maintained that there wasn’t anything wrong with hearing more of the latter.

With xylophone and saxophone, dulcimer, hand-bells and creaky old piano in the mix it was easy to say why Anderson suggested that it was interesting how a cello could be so rock and roll. But it worked with the orchestra adding lovely splashes of colour and a range of timbre to the songs.

That was certainly the case when he was joined by Gwenno, recently nominated for a Mercury Prize for her Cornish language album ‘Tresor.’ They reclothed Mercury Rev’s ‘Holes’ – a particular favourite of Anderson’s – in warmth and affection, their voices melding and chiming most easily. It was, for me one of highlights, not least because I hadn’t previously heard the song with much affection.

They also presented a version of a very old song, ‘The End of the World’ which was a hit for Skeeter Davis back in the 1960s. In truth this is about the end of a relationship rather than something more apocalyptic. It’s a song suffused with nostalgic charm and heartbroken lover’s ache and suited this for-one-night-only pairing of voices.

Then it was time for something a little darker as Brett Anderson presented a Jacques Brel song, ‘My Death’ which had been covered by David Bowie, reminding us of how often Anderson’s voice has been compared with Bowie’s in the past.

And Anderson, of course being somewhat of an androgynous enigma was much admired by Bowie, who described Suede as a ‘future institution’ while they in return added ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ to their set list on a U.S tour.

My Death‘ was stripped back, pared down with just Anderson and guitarist Adrian Utley from the band Portishead to deliver, thus allowing the audience to savour the clarity of the words and the crisp phrasing of the musical delivery.

In Brel’s song death is compared with many things. A Bible truth. A patient girl. A swinging door. It’s a witch at night and a beggar blind. Brett might have come swingingly out of Britpop but this achingly European number with its inventive litany of death-comparisons certainly suited him too.

A pretty short but judiciously selected set ended with ‘Wonderful Life’ by Black, Anderson’s celestial voice rounding things off in a soaringly heavenly manner, a choice ending to this selection from the Death Songbook’ an evening suffused with melancholy and tinged with sadness but shored up and lifted up by Anderson’s soaring, extraordinary voice.

The Llais festival continues at the Wales Millennium Centre today and you can read the full programme here.

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