Many of you will recall Sufjan Stevens bold plan in 2003 to produce an album representing every state of America. Many more will also remember his admission six years later that the project was over and he “no longer knew how to write an album”. That is what undertakings of this scale can do to even the most accomplished of songwriters.
Ben Cooper, an ostensibly enigmatic man hidden under the moniker of Radical Face, has found no such trouble. After releasing just one solo LP Ghost, Radical Face embarked on The Family Tree project, a trilogy of albums based on three generations of a mystical family, inspired by classic literature and Cooper’s own genealogy. The tales are set to indie folk music, with the sounds shifting from minimal chamber-folk to a more fleshed out alternative style in The Leaves, the culmination of the project.
The trilogy itself is set in 19th and 20th century America, and the historical implications are clear in Rivers In The Dust, a song with a backdrop of the 1930s dust bowl. It tells the tale of a couple making their way west through relentless dust storms and personal struggle.
“I’d dream a glass of water With you dreaming of the sea And I’d watch my feet and you would watch the sky And we would wonder why our eyes no longer meet.”
Despite the nearing pretentious concept, the lyrics in The Leaves are startlingly down to earth. Radical Face is at his best when writing about normal people in exceptional circumstances.
The album opens with a distant choir and thumping drum rolls in Secrets. This is all the more impressive considering Cooper, a multi-instrumentalist, creates all of his music by himself in a home studio; from layered voices to pianos and drums. The bass riff halfway through is a welcome melody and announces the start of a more direct and honest album than his previous.
For those unfamiliar with Radical Face, his style is hard to pin down. The Ship In Port, the most widely marketable song on Leaves by far, lies at one extreme. The song is sweetly sung with all the hallmarks of a typical indie folk tune. Yet, any comparison to the infamous Mumfords and their ilk seem a little off. A better comparison, although not immediately obvious, would be with the likes of Neutral Milk Hotel, Radiohead and The Flaming Lips. This leftfield streak is clear in The Road To Nowhere, with a purely orchestral intro and jagged, industrial drum programming, it demands multiple listens. The glitchy electronic bridge sounds as if it came straight from OK Computer.
As a fan, one of the fascinating aspects of Radical Face’s Family Tree is the depth at which the concept runs through the songs. To coincide with the release of The Leaves a detailed family map has been released online showing links between the albums and songs. For example, twins from a song on The Roots feature once again in Old Gemini, a track more firmly planted in traditional storytelling narrative.
There some members that don’t fit so snugly into this sprawling family tree. More so than before, Leaves features songs that delve into Cooper’s own family struggles during the recording of this album. Tracks like Bad Blood (a far cry from the Swift mega hit) explore issues of sexuality, made all the more touching knowing it is Cooper’s partner providing harmony on the cello. Everything Costs, too, is a deeply personal song, channelling this feeling with soft synths and ghostly female voices. Cooper has said he has doubts he will ever perform these songs live.
“Face, pressed into your hands Couldn’t tell if you were crying or laughing They both sound the same.”
If you haven’t already guessed The Leaves is hardly the optimistic spring record to be spawning sing-a-long singles. As well as sombre lyrics, the album has its fair share of dark, moody songs. Radical Face states his musical influences as mainly soundtracks and instrumental music. Midnight takes this cinematic prowess and uses it to paint a crystal clear image of a frightening midnight encounter with some kind of soul-stealing creature. It makes for a chilling listen.
Despite the occasional downer, the changing textures and stories are constantly surprising. From start to end, the record is a joy to listen to, standing tall against the two previous volumes. On a personal note, The Leaves is a perfect conclusion to an opus which was the first to get me to appreciate music as an art rather than a means to an end. The care that has gone into creating such an immersive world of sounds and stories has been a huge inspiration. I believe if you give The Family Tree: The Leaves enough time and patience you might hear this in it too.