Album dedications don’t usually give you much of an idea about what to expect from an album. Then again, Adam Stafford’s new record isn’t your usual album. Even as a teetotaller, it’s easy to be swayed by the description of an album that is described as being ‘dedicated to anyone who has ever been hungover’, but also extends that dedication to the ‘down-and-out, running from themselves, running for their life, trapped in prisons internal and external.’ Eight years in the making, the album covers some intense and emotional ground, and gives the listener not only plenty to listen to, but also to think about and reflect upon.
Having been described elsewhere as ‘a neo-classical album that deals directly with depression,’ it might seem as if this album on paper (never mind on speakers or through headphones) might be heavy-going. Let’s dismiss this right away: while it’s not easy-listening muzak, it’s actually an album to fall for without much difficulty, and to enjoy being swept away by. If there seems to be a lot going on here – not just musically, but emotionally, too – it is an inviting album, rather than one that seeks to alienate the listener. The opening track ‘An Abacus Designed To Calculate Infinity’ could suggest math-rock. While there are indeed hints within, for my money, there is also a link to Virginia Astley’s 1983 pastoral masterpiece From Gardens Where We Feel Secure. It evokes images of beautiful countryside scenes being overtaken by the arrival of the factories during the industrial revolution- a fitting analogy for the struggles of the daily grind as we get older. This is a work that references the likes of American minimalist composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich, the latter a particularly acknowledged influence on this album. Nowhere more so is this the case than on ‘Zero Disruption’ with its allusion to hallucinations.
Stafford’s skill is such that even during a piece (‘Songs’ feels inaccurate for the music on this record) that’s short, the music can move you close to tears. The album name comes from the less than two minutes long ‘Strangers Care When You Burn’ which references his own grandfather’s funeral and the point at which the coffin disappears behind the curtain; how he believed that that was the point at which the cremation started. While some rely on lyrics to communicate their feelings and emotions, Stafford’s musical textures paint a thousand words – dismissing toxic masculinity on ‘Museum Of Grinding Dicks,’ or seventeenth century misogyny on ‘The Witch Hunt.’ Once you have the title, the music takes over.
Stafford has been open about his battles with depression and anxiety, which stretch back to childhood. I sincerely hope that this release affords him some kind of light, because it is a very accomplished album indeed. This year marks the tenth anniversary of Song, By Toad as a label. Whilst there have been a number of excellent releases over that time, this may stand as perhaps the most stunning piece of art to have been released so far on the label.
Fire behind The Curtain is released on 27th April through Song, By Toad Records.