Putting on an album can be like putting on an episode of Baywatch. We can sit back in our couches and be mildly distracted by the aesthetics; the fulsome curves in primary colours; the tempting, if inconsequential, storyline encircled in faux drama; the mindless familiarity.
The design is to pass the time, allowing the viewer/listener to dip in and out before, ultimately, leaving them just as they were before; an unexpected lyric on the lips or image in the brain the only lasting side-effects.
‘Spell’ by House of Cosy Cushions isn’t one of those albums.
‘Spell’ is like a three hour long silent film about a weed growing through cracked cement in some rain-battered, abandoned industrial estate somewhere in the midlands, all shot in black and white.
‘Spell’ is not an album can be dipped in and out of, or played to distract from anything else. It’s an album that must be in the forefront of the listener’s consciousness for its 42 minutes less the impact be lost entirely.
There is no jubilation in ‘Spell’. There is no whistling, toe-tapping or head bobbing. There is no warmth here and no joy. Instead, it is a celebration of desolation. It is loneliness expressed as an art form. It is downbeat and contemplative and bare.
Opening track Mountain, for example, sounds like a rusted, uneven merry go round being spun by the wind in a long-since-abandoned playground. There are no birds chirping, no children laughing, no sunshine. There is the squeak and the wind, and maybe some insects scavenging on the last remnants of life left in the picture.
Black Bat Dance is the one moment of immediacy in the album. Drums are beaten as strings are bowed and distorted almost out of recognition. It’s fast and it’s powerful, but it’s not vibrant nor uplifting. Black Bat Dance is the storm beating on the decrepit landscape that is ‘Spell’.
The occasional lyrics do little to bring levity to the situation. “Girl with the insect dress/we know life is a mess,” from Girl with the Insect Dress, is the closest we ever to sing along with the album, so lost and despairing is the album’s air.
House of Cosy Cushions add a few instrumental flourishes here and there – from the haunted sax of Charlotte Saloman to the requiem organs on The Mad Sisters – each the mot juste in perfect time, but, for the most part, it’s noticeably bare.
‘Spell’ is not an album to be appreciated, not enjoyed. There is no distraction in ‘Spell’. There are no red-clothed curves acting as choruses. There is no running in slow motion. It’s a long, slow, arduous journey, but one that becomes ever more dramatic and compelling as it goes on.
‘Spell’ is an album that must be listened to, not just heard. It is not the soundtrack to anything. It’s not something you put on when you’re cooking or cleaning; when you have friends over; when you’re trying to set the mood; or when you’re reading.
The only time to listen to ‘Spell’ is when you are really ready to actually listen to an album. In that situation, and in that situation alone, ‘Spell’ is fantastic.