Album review: MG Boulter – Clifftown

I’m sure I’ve said it before on this blog; words to the effect of great art being able to conjure up a tangible atmosphere and a distinct sense of time and place. Often it is, as Thomas Merton put it, something that “enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time”. Living with this record over the last couple of months, I found myself thinking a lot about this dichotomy, and how true it rings. It’s what great writers are able to do; capture something of the world around them, some universal structure, something familiar, and inhabit the space with new life. And so, with Clifftown, MG Boulter delivers a superb set of songs that chronicle the inevitable, inexorable cycle of suburban life in all its mundane, magnificent glory.

Based on his (and my own) native Southend on Sea – an archetypal faded seaside town that resides on the Thames Estuary on England’s South-East coast, the fictional setting of Clifftown is captured in a set of vignettes populated by old ladies feeding coins into out-of-season seafront slot machines, teenagers shuffling around late-night Co-ops as ‘zombies, waiting for their lives to start’, distant silos looming on the horizon, and girls who grew up dreaming of becoming actresses only to end up endlessly calling out ‘Do you want to party?’ to ten-year-olds in a theme park.

What I admire most about Boulter’s lyric writing is the subtle poignancy with which he manages to capture deceptively simple lives. The characters that populate his songs rarely appear anything other than ordinary, and yet through mundane, everyday acts – such as the protagonist in Nights at the Aquarium marveling at the ‘colourful and innocent’ fishes behind the glass and wondering ‘maybe I can be colourful and innocent too?’ – he manages to reveal complex lives. As a songwriter, I’ve long felt that his principle strength lies in his ability to leave a listener with the impression that the people that inhabit his songbook – from the narrators through to the fleeting mentions – carry on living their lives long after the needle reaches the runout groove.

Musically, it feels very much the most playful of his records to date. Arrangements (particularly on tracks such as the aforementioned Nights at the Aquarium, and Fan of the Band, both of which – somewhat unexpectedly – have shades of Paul Simon) seem to be edging towards new pathways. Two clear highlights of the LP are the almost glacial Icy Paw, and Pilate – both of which benefit from Andy Bell’s excellent, deft production touches. Repeated listens on headphones are rewarded with layer upon layer of subtle detail in the mix. As ever, long-term collaborators such as Paul Ambrose, Lucy Farrell, and Pete Flood are integral to the community spirit that courses through these songs too. There’s a palpable camaraderie that jumps out of the speakers and manifests as genuine warmth – and this is never more evident than on the extraordinary closing track, Pilate, which actually dates back to a session in 2016 that essentially served as the genesis of the Hudson label.

In short: Clifftown is another fine LP from one of the finest songwriters (that I know of) in the UK. Boulter’s music has often looked to the colourful history of the Estuary for inspiration, but never before has he documented this particularly English suburbia in such a rich and evocative manner. It also helps that – in tracks such as The Slow Decline, Simon of Sudbury, and Remnants – the record contains some of his most impressive, and gently-experimental, songs to date. Now, I could keep writing, delivering hyperbolic sentence after hyperbolic sentence, but it’s probably best to let you scroll down, listen to three tracks, and form your own opinion. In terms of my one though; I wholly recommend. It’s a richly observed, life-affirming work, and – like its predecessor – sure to be cropping up on more than a few end-of-year lists.

Clifftown is released on April 23 through Hudson Records. You can pre-order the LP here.


A track by track guide to Clifftown, with MG Boulter

Photo credit: Jinnwoo

Originally I’d wanted to publish a piece on the album alongside an interview with Matthew regarding its themes and the recording process. However, if you saw my short piece on Midnight Movies back in early March you may well be aware that he’s produced a podcast series that ties in with the record. So far there have been three episodes released – all of which I’ve found immensely enjoyable – which are available wherever you get your podcasts from. Anyway, between this and the in-depth interview I published last year to launch this blog, I felt that it would risk treading old ground. With this in mind, I asked Matthew whether he’d consider writing a short track-by-track guide to the LP instead. Ever the professional, he already had one written and ready to go.


Midnight Movies

I walk around the streets of Southend-on-Sea and its suburbs at night. In the summer the seafront is alive with people and in the 1990s boys used to descend with their souped up cars and slowly crawl around the loop of the esplanade. It used to feel so dangerous driving down there with my dad when we were kids to drop relatives off on the other side of town. It was like living in a movie scene with all the neon lights and fairground sounds.


Soft White Belly

The old lady referred to at the beginning of this song was someone I had once observed standing in an empty arcade in the off season and with a small plastic tub of pennies she was methodically feeding the one armed bandits. It looked like an Edward Hopper painting, the last bit of life before the void. On the opposite shore to Southend is the Hoo Peninsula and the Isle of Grain in Kent. It is dotted with vast silos and chimneys which have been a constant backdrop to my living here.


Clifftown

Southend is a place where kids grow up and then ninety percent of them flee for London after working the menial jobs at the co-ops and curry houses. They then return to raise their own kids here. It’s the natural cycle like salmon swimming upstream.


Nights at the Aquarium

All seaside towns have an aquarium. Southend’s aquarium sits at the east end of the seafront. It emits salty mudflat smells and is usually full of excited and noisy kids. The cafe has porthole windows and it’s nice to sit there at weekends and pretend you’re out at sea. This song is about losing your troubles in the quiet subterranean world of water. 


The Author of All Things, She Speaks

This is an esoteric song written about the patterns beneath the plough, the layers of life that have gone before us which accumulates whether we are aware of it or not. 


Icy Paw

Kids jump off the quays and jetties in Old Leigh during the summer. It’s a dangerous pastime as many harbour stumps and fishing detritus lie just beneath the water.  I was thinking of the jetty on Canvey Island when writing this song. It’s a huge finger pointing out to sea and was used for pumping oil into the nearby Shellhaven. Local heroes Dr Feelgood named their debut album after it and sang about the oil refinery, its flames burning in the night.


The Slow Decline

This song starts in Peter Pan’s Playground theme park (now known as Adventure Island) where there is a small stage under the rollercoaster. Presenters take to this stage in the summer and over blaring music they pump the children up into fairground ecstasy. Southend has a superb homeless charity and sadly in the summer months, some years back, homeless people were setting up makeshift camps on ‘the cliffs’. I reference them here standing under the Arches, which is a nod to the row of beachside cafes which are housed in the arches under the road that leads up the cliff.


Simon of Sudbury

If you live in Clifftown you go on holiday elsewhere. Simon of Sudbury was the Archbishop of Canterbury during what was commonly known as the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381. He was beheaded by the rebels on Tower Hill in London. Someone retrieved his head from a spike and took it back to a church in Sudbury, Suffolk where it remains on display to this day. This song is about my quest to visit it.


Fan of the Band

This song is a homage to the pub rock gigs I used to play on Saturday nights in my younger days when the pubs were full of characters. These people, who had seen the first great era of local bands like Dr Feelgood and Eddie and the Hotrods, would always be offering you drunken advice as they propped up the bar.


Night Worker

When I first began gigging in London I often found myself running down Fenchurch Street for the last train home. The cabbies would always be there having a smoke and waiting for those who missed it so they could get a fare for the way home. The City is gloriously empty at night and in the foyers of the huge glass towers of insurance companies and banks you will often see lonesome security guards whiling away the night. It seems very romantic to me. 


Remnants

A song about those times you find a camera full to the brim of a past life.


Pilate

What if Pontius Pilate had been sent to Southend-on-Sea instead of Judea? I wonder sometimes if Southend is just a provincial identity forgotten by the louder noise of London. 


For more information on the project, including loads of interesting bits on the podcasts, you can check out Matt’s blog.


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