OK, quick history lesson. A hundred years and a couple of months ago, someone shot Franz Ferdinand (not the band) and the whole world descended into madness (also not the band). What followed was essentially a human meat grinder, millions of young lives fed into one end and coming out the other as the sausages of empire. Such extremity of experience gave birth to some of the most heartrending poets of the twentieth century, many (not all, but a lot) dedicated to hammering home the message that The Great War wasn’t, in fact, all that fucking great. Sadly, in most cases it also gave death to them. And now they’ve been given new life thanks to those cheeky musical tricoteuses The Tiger Lillies, who’ve put some of those poems to music for their latest excursion into Hell.I must admit I approached this one with some trepidation — I mean, I love The Tiger Lillies; their gleeful blend of horror and the circus has given rise to some of the most wonderful music I’ve ever heard, but they also have a tendency to, on occasion, over-egg the pudding somewhat, and you end up with stuff like “Banging In The Nails” — which, rather like a child swearing on the bus, is hilarious and awesome the first couple of times, but after that you kind of just wish it’d shut the fuck up. I was a bit worried that tackling a subject as immense as the First World War would either dull their humorous edge, or lead them into realms of tastelessness from which it would be hard to return.
I shouldn’t have worried, really. It’s the perfect tapestry for them to weave their own threads into — blood, mud, death and bitterness abound. It starts all jaunty with a jig to Charles Hamilton Sorley‘s “Death”, which puts one in mind of Bergman‘s The Seventh Seal, only here the Grim Reaper has challenged the knight to a dance-off instead of a game of chess. And of course, this being the First World War, Death is completely pwning the hapless knight. Sorley’s “The Mouthless Dead” is also on here, intoned seriously over a piece of music that wouldn’t be overly out of place on a Bad Seeds album, or a Cave/Ellis film score. William Hodgson‘s “Help Me” is almost unbearably sad, the Lillies this time having a perfect grasp on when to rein it in and when to let loose.But none of this is to say that they’ve completely abandoned their trademark gallows humour. Arthur Graeme West‘s “God How I Hate You” is delivered with as much gleeful venom as anything Martyn Jacques has ever written himself, and Alan Seeger‘s “Rendezvous With Death” is a real toe-tapper.
And of course the great Wilfred Owen is well-represented here, being given the last four tracks of the album all to himself, from the sleazy cabaret of “Nothing Ever Happens” through the Arab Strap-esque melancholy of “Mud” and crippled lament of “Three Parts” to arguably the most famous poem of the period, “Dulce Et Decorum Est”, which you almost certainly learned at school.* And if you didn’t, you should probably be working on building a time machine right now so you can go back and slap your English teacher and scream “WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING?” at them. This is, fittingly, just read, rather than sung, over a beautifully lilting piano melody, and is The Tiger Lillies at their most understated. It’s a fitting end, and a fitting tribute to the dead.
*If you went to school in Britain or the Commonwealth.