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Neil Gaiman & FourPlay String Quartet Signs of Life album review by Paris Rosemont

Updated: Aug 9, 2023



They had me at ‘collaboration between music + poetry’. What a delicious marriage between the artforms, blending the organic, experimental sounds of a contemporary string quartet with the nuance and theatrical flair of a spoken word craftsman. Signs of Life pulses with precisely that: life—in its various incarnations—solemn and reverential, cheeky and acerbic, deep and philosophical. It simultaneously explores elements of death, time and the universe, all of which perch precariously on the tip of a tongue, the strum of a string. An elegant, intelligent voyage into the beautiful and profound, Signs of Life takes us on a journey through the inner worlds and outer extremities of our imaginations. Much like the cleverly executed Möbius Strip that appears as Track 2, the music enhances the words, enhances the music, enhances the words


But I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning…of time, with the ticking metronome that sets the steady 60bpm pulse for the album’s opening track, Clock. With its gentle musical motifs, the lyricism of a Shakespearean sonnet lending the timelessness of its words and Neil’s vocal mastery which could not be a more perfect sonic vehicle for the recitation of Shakespeare, this piece draws the listener into the otherworldliness of Signs of Life, with its ‘sable curls all silver’d o’er with white’.


Next, we are presented with the deceptive simplicity of Möbius Strip—a lilting, childlike pizzicato loop and magical, bedtime story-like narrative setting the scene. But as we are propelled along the storyline, we realise that a layered complexity belies the surface simplicity. With a little twist—nothing grandiose, a mere slight of the hand, what at first seemed quite straightforward, is in fact, deeply profound. Therein lies the brilliance of this piece that takes twists and turns both in its looping musical motifs, as well as the lyrics, which open up to a wonderland of existential musings: ‘…magic. It’s all in the twist. It’s the twist that brings you back where you started’.


This is a well-poised album insofar that the tracks are balanced in order to allow the listener some breathing space. We have the vamp pop delight Bloody Sunrise sandwiched in between the meta Möbius Strip and the poignancy of The Wreckers, the latter of which deals with harrowing subject-matter with restraint and compassion. The Wreckers uses lyrical and musical imagery to plunge the listener into the perils of a treacherous sea, its inky mysteriousness accentuated by the deep, sonorous sound of the cello. Pizzicato kicks in and a sense of movement is introduced—rolling waves carrying the listener on their ebb and flow. We get the sense that nature is a powerful force that both gives and takes. Perhaps the most striking line in this piece is the evocative: ‘But nature lost a daughter, who remains six seeds of pomegranate dead today’. Neil’s slow, sparse acapella delivery of this makes it deeply impactful. But The Wreckers does not leave the listener adrift. Instead, we are bestowed with three gifts to end our voyage on—meditations to ease our passage as we ‘remember…the moonlight on the water’.


Well-placed as the next track is the gear shift of Song of the Song, with its droll playfulness. The way Neil toys with the listener makes for an irresistible game of cat and mouse and we cannot help but feel charmed, even as it dawns on us that we have been lured by this siren’s song, thereby becoming part of the cautionary tale the lyrics warn of: ‘you can never trust a song/whatever you’ve heard/songs are just sweet illusions/made of words’. Perhaps my favourite part of the whole album occurs in this piece, with Neil’s playful pacing and execution of the phrase: ‘There’s a boy loves a girl/she has skin fair as milk/she has breasts like ripe apples/and lips soft as silk’, rolling the words deliciously around in his mouth, as though he were the coolest cat in town, supping decadently on a bowl of cream. The instrumentals really lean into this vibe, with playful taps, anticipatory pauses and glissandi helping to bring to life an utterly delightful Song of the Song.


Credo is a powerful piece, driven by the mantra-like lyrics that are executed by Neil with an impeccable sense of timing and eloquence. This is a thematically challenging work that jolts the listener out of complacency: ‘I do not believe that…smashing their heads with rocks (to let the bad ideas out)…will work to contain ideas you do not like. Ideas spring up where you do not expect them, like weeds, and are as difficult to control’. Credo is delivered not as a didactic set of beliefs, but as the beginning of an open conversation, challenging the listener to reflect upon the credo that makes up the fabric of their own existence. The music supports the words with an understated elegance, the plodding bassline providing a steady sense of movement, to echo the sentiment espoused in the closing line: ‘Eppur si muove: and yet it moves’.


In my recent WestWords Mini-Masterclass Podcast interview with FourPlay cellist Peter Hollo, I noted that Neverwhere is the only solely instrumental track on Signs of Life, acting as a ‘palate cleanser’ of sorts, to give the listener an opportunity to decompress from the richness and complexity of the spoken word pieces. Indeed, Peter remarked that Neverwhere was strategically placed at around the halfway point of the album in order to give the listener some respite before things grew more intense heading into the second half of the album.


That intensity greets us in the form of the Poem first read on January 26th 2022 at the Sydney Opera House. This is a stunning piece, albeit not a comfortable ride: ‘Before the casual genocide/This was the land where nightmares loped/And hopped and ran and crawled and slid…The dropbear fantasy made flesh…Time is a beast that eats and eats/gives nothing back but ash and bones’. It is confronting and devastating, a nightmarish onslaught of the atrocities that we, as humankind, to our shame, have committed on the land and the animals we have brought to extinction. The accompanying sound effects, such as the overdriven cello mimicking the sounds of the didgeridoo, and glissandi reminiscent of native birdcalls, give the piece a very Australian flavour. This is a chilling montage—a sobering wake-up call that will not, cannot be ignored.


From the peak intensity of the preceding piece, the listener is given reprieve via the light-hearted The Problem with Saints, a welcome tongue-in-cheek ditty set to playfully lilting instrumentals and featuring some cute ‘n’ clever wordplay: ‘the people that she hated will be neatly bifurcated’. This is followed by the gentle In Transit, in which moments of beauty and profundity unfurl in the juxtaposition of the micro and the macro: ‘And afterwards they lay on their back in the stubble staring up at the stars…countable as the hairs on his friend’s head’. In Transit grinds to a somewhat unsettling halt courtesy of the dissonant strings evoking a sense of mechanical failure. The listener is left uncertain as to where we have landed, but in the bigger picture, that may not necessarily matter: ‘Somewhen his finger strokes the stubble on another’s cheek/and for a moment everything is relative’.


We reach the album’s title track, Signs of Life, with its elegiac lyrics and haunting melody; a poignant exploration of grief and loss: ‘And in the end there’s just a dented pillow where a head lay’. The words are resonant in the pathos of universal experience, prayer-like backing vocals and instrumentals building to a desperation of yearning in the middle section, before the tenderness of compassion intervenes and gives way to gradual acceptance. The story arc of this piece alone is quite a journey, executed with tenderness and humanity. The impact of the images the listener is left with are together, much bigger than a sum of their individual parts: ‘We are custodians, but all our words are writ on water’.


The beautiful, meditative calm of Oceanic gives the listener a soft landing to exit the album on, the glorious strings and gentle choral refrain washing over us, returning us safely to shore. As a little twist (for Möbius Strip taught us early on that ‘the world twists’), the piece ends with surprising moments of instrumental dissonance and distortion. How beautifully symbolic of the nature of life.


Signs of Life is a glorious album that pulses with depth and complexity, treading the liminal space between life and death. Tableaux of individual pathos are a microcosm expanding into a wider universality of timelessness and profundity. It is this sense of time, ticking away in the background, of the awareness that we are but cogs in the wheel of something much greater than ourselves, that is the undercurrent propelling this album along its existential journey. It is finely crafted work of collaborative artforms, drawing inspiration from philosophy, cosmology, the natural and supernatural. With sparkling intelligence, playful wit, theatrical flair and sweeping, lyrical beauty, Signs of Life reminds us of what is at the very core of our own humanity—our signs of life.





To find out more about this fabulous band and/or album, head over to www.fourplay.com.au

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