Grand Salvo – ‘Soil Creatures’
July 14, 2009 § Leave a comment
Published: The Vine, July 9, 2009.
When Paddy Mann’s Death was finally realised last year, the question on everyone’s lips was where to now? Five years in the making, the record featured upwards of 25 players, full orchestral arrangements, a childrens storybook and a narrator in the form of Mann’s Dad. It was Mann’s grand statement, his epic. What did the Melbourne songsmith – known to most as Grand Salvo – have left?
Well, within months of Death’s concert hall, chamber ensemble inauguration, Mann had hopped a plane to Tassie to bunk down in the new studio of former Sydneysider and production maestro Chris Townend. Just like that, the bare bones of his fifth record, Soil Creatures, were in place.
While he’s certainly fleshed them out somewhat in the time since, on winding through the 10 sketches that comprise the album, skeletal metaphors certainly remain apt. From its first track – the gently tumbling piano and angelic harmony of ‘Storm’ – Soil Creatures is very much a return to the more unassuming and sparing dynamics of earlier material like The Temporal Wheel and River Road. Mann’s boyish vocal and nylon string guitar are joined by mere whispers of harp and piano and strings and percussion. Even long-time vocal foil Zoe Randell (of Luluc) only makes a couple of appearances.
But this is anything but a step backwards. The further you venture into Soil Creatures, the more it reveals its purist qualities. The fingerpicked guitar lines that underpin vignettes like the glimmering ‘Flowers’ and ‘Rain’ are Mann’s finest yet, while the vocal melodies and intimate lyricism of ‘Needles’ and the wonderful ‘Father’ – framed by a pealing string arrangement – are beautiful beyond words. “Nurse me in my crook / hide my face so I can’t look,” croons Mann. “By the time it took for me to come good / you have grown so old.”
The common motif amongst these songs is time and decay; Mann seems interested in the ways our thoughts and perceptions shift and breakdown through the years. But while such a theme could easily lose itself to sentimentalism, Mann’s words and arrangements are so economical that scenes, portraits and atmospheres remain just that. Songs like the stunningly fragile ‘Road’ speak volumes without saying much at all. “The dreams I have are always what I’ve lost / or what I fear to lose,” leads faint, wraith-like harmony. “The leaves cover my shoes.” Death’s sprawling orchestrations and epic narratives almost feel like a distraction by comparison.
Mann may have stripped things back, but he has gained far more than he has lost. Soil Creatures isn’t just about accumulation, but refinement. It is Paddy Mann at his most elemental, incisive and crystallised.