These New Puritans – Inside the Rose
Marking a slight departure from their neo-classical past, Southend-on-Sea's These New Puritans have a punt at pop on Inside The Rose – and it’s a direct hit
Days prior to releasing their long-awaited follow up to 2013’s Field of Reeds, the Barnett twins – Jack and George, aka These New Puritans – curated a mix for Hackney-via-online radio station NTS. There’s always a temptation to deduce an implicit ‘reading list’ from these musician mixes; the urge is all the greater in this case, given we haven’t heard anything from These New Puritans for six years.
What soundtracked the lengthy gestation period of their latest album Inside the Rose? In amongst Coil, David Bowie, and Bark Psychosis is the playlist’s sole outlier – King of Rock 'n' Roll, with its 'Hot dog / jumping frog / Albuquerque' lyrics. What are Britain’s most elusive modern-day mystics doing listening to Prefab Sprout’s quasi-novelty pop hit?
"The irony is that, in my head, I always think we’re making pop music," primary songwriter Jack Barnett told Another Man in a 2017 interview. The striking image gracing their latest album cover even says as much. The seated twins – statuesque as Topman models, Jack’s hands twisted into a Heroes-esque thesp's gesture – are far more PR-friendly here compared to the stony epitaph of 2010’s Hidden. Like Björk and Radiohead (and indeed, like Prefab Sprout) at their most experimental, Inside the Rose denotes an internal struggle. It’s a good-cop-bad-cop routine, interrogating pop like a detective does a criminal suspect, attempting to determine its pathology – by turns carefully and antagonistically.
'Let’s get lost together' croons Jack on Anti-Gravity, and its straightforward escapism is likely the poppiest thing they’ve put to record. Where once they took their sweet time, revelling in the discomfort of the avant-garde (vacant silences, labyrinthine structures, byways into disharmony), These New Puritans strike directly with the most immediate of musical language – not least with a catchy chorus. The quietly poetic refrain of 'Never give up / Never get up' is pure and simple, set against an irresistibly wavy piano phrase and George’s building percussion. Even the concessions to neo-classicism are lusciously accessible, like the frequent presence of a Steve Reich vocal pulse (a dead ringer for the one in Music for 18 Musicians). This is These New Puritans taking you by the hand and reeling you into the neon-tinted night, not unlike Carly Rae Jepsen leading you into the disco. The frequent appearance of pulsating synths and thumping beats across Inside the Rose implies that the frowning brothers too could be coerced into the party.
But animosity emerges throughout Inside the Rose with the thematic fixation on fire – running into it, being engulfed by it, watching it from afar. 'This is where your dreams come true / Your nightmares too,' Jack sings on Where the Trees Are On Fire. Songs like the scorched earth Coil-alike Beyond Black Suns and the lapping flames of Into the Fire reel off urgent eschatological imagery, paired with the dark folk lyricism usually reserved for children’s songs and musings on the mysteries of the cosmos; 'Inside the rose / How does it grow? / How can you know? / Where does it go?'
It’s easy to imagine These New Puritans glibly drawing a line between pop excess and fiery destruction. Doesn’t pop burn bright before winking out, over and over again? ('This is the fire you can’t put out'). It’s an irony that musicians who regard pop with suspicion usually turn out to be quite good at making it.
Listen to: Anti-Gravity, Beyond Black Suns, Inside the Rose