In 2011, an article was published in the British Medical Journal calling for the removal of Charles Byrne’s skeleton from the Hunterian Museum. Byrne was born 250 years earlier in County Tyrone, and was dead a mere twenty-two years later, at a height of nearly eight feet. He died of the same growth condition which enabled his success as a travelling curiosity, shortly after he was mugged of all his earnings. Fearing the post-mortem interference of autological anatomist John Hunter, Byrne had previously made arrangements to be buried at sea in a lead coffin, but his cadaver was stolen and reduced to a skeleton, which has been on public display ever since.
Attempting to reconcile the nescience of the dead with the sorrow provoked by Byrne’s story is likely to kindle a bit of cognitive dissonance. Rational scrutiny may invite the unwelcome inference that logically, we shouldn’t feel sad. Dismissing the possibility of a nimbused Byrne looking down on our earthly endeavours (both literally and metaphorically) as he witnesses his body’s desecration, one could easily argue that what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him, as callous as it may seem.
It’s a quandary which is reified by Short Ballad for a Long Man – the first track of Seamus Fogarty’s latest album The Curious Hand.
So come on, marvel at my size And damn your bones and damn your eyes Queueing round the block to see me
Folk music is usually accessible in its sadness. It’s riddled with personal expressions of melancholy and loss which are near-universal in their reach. It provides solace in the knowledge that our human tribulations are shared by others, and that we are seldom as alone as we think.
Short Ballad blows this notion out of the water. Not only is the sad tale of the Irish Giant one which is completely unique, but it also provokes a sadness which is a little harder to fully come to terms with. Through the explication of such a strange topic, and via the supernatural slant of Fogarty’s lyrics, the sentiment transgresses familiarity to become something uncanny and ineffable. Short Ballad is to typical folk music what Blood Meridian is to The Road – it forgoes that accessible, familiar sadness for philosophical despondency and borderline nihilism, leaving the listener to reflect on their own reaction to the song as much as its lyrical content.
The opening track offers just a glimpse of how touching The Curious Hand can be. The record’s eponymous centerpiece contemplates lost youth and fading purpose, and becomes increasingly disconnected as Fogarty guardedly flirts with various streams of consciousness. A significant tonal shift halfway through the piece accompanies the transition from one gorgeous melodic framework to another, and pre-empts his solitary musings “as the drops [of rain] begin to tap-dance across the awning” in Temple Bar.
“And we sat around, a momentary family / Raising a brief glass to our asylum”, he sings on Christmas Time on Jupiter, exploring the madness and alienation of being apart from everything familiar. “I’ve burned through bridges like they’re cigarettes”, he laments on Mexico, which shifts from vilification of a former employer to a painfully self-aware examination of Fogarty’s own foibles. The industrial presence which is thematically peppered throughout Seems Wherever slowly creeps into the music, as intimate folk makes way for low drones and subtle electronics.
There’s joy here, too. Heels Over Head is a lovely love song about not having everything figured out which has everything figured out, and “Poor old Van Gogh / The man with the famous ear / Cut one off in a fit of madness / Left one on so he could hear” (Van Gogh’s Ear) gets funnier with each listen. Carlow Town recounts the time Fogarty and friends woke up in a Church after a drunken night out, and is therefore the most Irish song ever written. The track’s unbridled folktronica is pure magic; beguiling electronics mesh with unpredictable melodic twists, providing a beautiful river of sound for Fogarty’s euphonious lilt to float upon as the amusing tale unfolds.
Tired as I was, I ascended slowly from my repose To find fifty old women with their eyes glued to their toes
From heady, acoustic IDM (St John’s Square) to meditative, spectral drone (Tommy the Cat), the record inspires nostalgia, humour and sadness through a plethora of varied sonic textures and approaches. It’s a wonderfully elegant observation of the human experience - devoid of any hint of pretentiousness or insincerity - which evokes as rich a palette of emotions as it draws from. Its comments will make you laugh, cry and think, and its music will make you happy.
The Curious Hand deserves your undivided attention.