Cue the inevitable deluge of Joanna Newsom comparison, for we’ve our very own off-kilt songstress armed with a harp and caught betwixt the contemporary and the baroque. Or rather we’ve now had for quite some time, for The Moths Are Real is the third studio full-length from introspective Londoner Serafina Steer who, quite coincidentally, just so happened to release her début, Cheap Demo Bad Science, but a matter of months after Newsom had herself outed her medievally ornamented magnum opus, Ys.
Thus already Joanna-paralleled – and moreover Jarvis-produced – Steer must surely have here set coordinates for a considerably enhanced prominence in the minds of many. For most, though, it shan’t all be plain sailing, for The Moths Are Real is a momentarily obdurate, and with that ungainly listen. Musically, needless to say in combining forty-seven strings with a more contemporary compositional approach than that with which the instrument is more traditionally associated, the Newsom comparisons can feasibly be vindicated. Though lyrically, stylistic discrepancies are transparently manifest as Steer unstitches the eccentric yarn-spinning of her distant Cali contemporary, only to reweave a more pensive, and indeed pragmatic tone.
Hers is a jejune vernacular: “I don’t know why I’m heading to Brick Lane/ I hate it there like everybody does” she ingenuously coos over seductive ripples of string on the stirring Ballad Of Brick Lane. It is but one of twelve, though none comprise kooky warbles of sprouts, nor beans, nor jimmy-crack-corn. Instead, those through which Serafina steers us are all the more simple, and with simplicity comes comprehension; a more penetrable intelligibility and though a further word or two could be conjured when comparing the two (were we to take Newsom’s Cosmia lyric of “Moths surround me/ Thought they’d drown me”, for example) this piece oughtn’t be an indirect parallel – concerted or otherwise – as much as it should be a panegyric to one of the more innovatory recordings of recent times.
Steer herself is something of a moth-like creature perhaps best suited to the darkened parts. “I’m lying here awake/ After midnight/ Dry mouth and thoroughly contrite” she gracefully sighs on the lavishly orchestrated Lady Fortune, as though she were sat wishing for some almighty wardrobe with enough wool to stave off starvation for months to swallow her whole. Her compositions, however, are anything but drab. In fact quite antithetically, they’re startlingly vivid for the most part, whether that be down to the jollity at play within Machine Room – during which lyrics of “going below” in a “boiler suit and hard hat” undulate about one of umpteen fluttering refrains – or her genteelly articulated dissatisfaction with an intractable workhand which is scattered across punctual staccato accentuation marks on The Removal Man. So though now in her early 30s, a childlike mischief still lingers and never is this impishness more acutely expressed than on a chanson entitled Has Anyone Ever Liked You. Now, prior to pressing play you’d be forgiven for thinking this to be a belated reminiscence of a juvenile waggling of fingers upon nose in the general direction of a beloved friend and despised nemesis, with the aforesaid stati interchanged on a day-to-day. Instead, it begins with Steer enquiring: “Has anyone ever liked you/ As much as I do/ Or as well?” It sounds faintly reminiscent of an unplugged Fairport Convention doing Scarborough Fair with a pinch more major key sprinkled in for added seasoning, though it’s explicit emotivity that’s so raw it can only exist for precisely one minute and fifty-two seconds before it flakes off entirely.
Then there’s Island Odessy – an itself highly odd album outlier in kind, featuring awry pipes most likely last heard somewhere fuzzy and bedraggled back in the ‘Convention’s formative ’70s and the sputtering buzz of a rudimentary acoustic – upon which Steer juxtaposes impassioned exclamations of the enormity of her heart with a somewhat unorthodox chorus of “You killed your pigs and drank your wine/ Oh-oh-oh/ They killed your pigs and drank up your wine/ Oh-oh no.” It’s a blackened (and seemingly Golding-inspired turn) and one to which she returns in the album’s closing moments where, on a dismal title track, Steer repeatedly concedes: “There’s never light enough” in a perplexingly radiant speak-sing tone redolent both of Bat For Lashes’ The Haunted Man and every bit of Marianne Faithfull all at once.
Though lodged between these two isolated instances are another few of blistering splendour, and bewitching dare I say folksy warmth: the first is Alien Invasion – an extraordinarily buoyant chamber-pop ditty which juxtaposes the musically folkloric with the lyrically progressive and fanciful, as Steer chirps of “terrestrial beings” and remedial blue potions. However it’s that which follows – entitled Disco Compilation – which proves the sticking point; the irrefutable apex of Serafina’s artistry, and indeed of her utmost ingenuity. It’s an unprecedentedly glittery thing that sparkles in innumerable ways, despite being another unquestionable outlier when contextualising the record as a cohesive whole. It begins – as does nigh on her every other – with a flittering harp refrain which tingles about her frail trill. “Of course my scanty life philosophy/ As you suspected all along/ Is actually based on lines from songs but/ They are with me/ When you are gone I shall put on/ My favourite disco compilation CD/ From an old friend, and let the music wrap/ Its long arms around me” she reticently fesses.
Elegiac stanzas if ever there were, though these set the tone and establish the premise for that which is to follow, and this is the truly magical part: where it were once a doleful, and somehow self-effacing recollection of a better day and a subsequent disco-fuelled night, as a lonesome kick drum comes in after a minute or so the track itself becomes something of an incendiary brief history of disco, as quicksilver strings and a heady beat are artfully built about this resilient thud. It’s as though the song-based representation of the fairytale in which the leather-bound tale comes to life just as the prissy central protagonist slumps to her lowest point or, to cite Steer, that at which “everyone is a brokenhearted stranger.”
Whilst maintaining an unchanging melancholia in an immutably minor key, from here on in it only ascends as may a star of either the astronomical, or indeed musical variety. It is arguably the sound, and again evocative vision of Brit pop’s greatest left field hope glimmering in the ripplets of the mainstream – a star being born not a moment too soon, and a record coincidentally quite worth drowning in completely.
Released: January 14th, 2013 [Stolen Recordings]