Orlando Weeks 'A Quickening' LP
Worlds shift every day. Relationships end. New worlds begin. They open up and they fill out. People are born. Relationships grow. Lives are transformed.
A year and a half ago, Orlando Weeks became a father. He wanted to try and make sense of an experience that is both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time.
“I was trying to find a course through something that happens all the time, but still feels exceptional” Weeks says.
A baby is born every minute, and yet the experience of becoming a parent - and the way it changes your life - is unprecedented.
As someone who has always made and created things, Weeks knew that he would be compelled to make something about waiting for his son to arrive, and about the new world he and his partner found themselves in after the birth.
“I just knew that it would be stranger for me not to write about it than to write about it.”
The result is A Quickening, Weeks’s first album as a solo artist, to be released this June on Play It Again Sam, as his son turns two-years old. It’s a record about love and fear, about anticipating what is to come, and about digging up deep connections from the past. Drums trip, woodwind and brass can be heard, piano lines run in and out, vocals layer and guitars are few and far between. This is not the indie rock and roll that some may have predicted.
You might think of Talk Talk. You might think of Robert Wyatt. You might think of Radiohead or Bon Iver. You might think of the wonder of Kate Bush. You might think of Lambchop’s late career electronic turn, replacing in that case Kurt Wagner’s Nashville-inflected fragments with Orlando’s chiming and pure delivery, served up by way of South London. His voice shimmers above the instruments and the electronics, reflecting in its quality what is in the lyrics: feelings of love, fear and wonder that are overwhelming but still delicate.
The songs here on this album are full of adventure, often dreamlike and magical, kaleidoscopes of emotion and feeling. During and after his partner’s pregnancy, Weeks would draw pictures of her and his son travelling through space and time, the boy nestled in his mother’s hair. Those illustrations are currently being collected into a short story. The album track Moon’s Opera tells this story:
“Told tales all night / Of the fore and the after / Gotten older Gotten wiser Hallelujah… Lucky you are a rider. Stone skimmer, drink your water, travel after, may you know no disaster. Lucky you are a rider. ”
The songwriter is clear that he is not trying to reproduce his partner’s experience: you won’t find any mansplaining in this music. What he does is tell the story of the witness, the father-to-be, a figure both vital to the story and yet also somewhat removed, in awe of what the mother goes through and often helpless to do anything about it.
“To give a body yours and give up all control”,
he sings on Summer Clothes, which is about his partner, her body and her clothes in the months leading up to and after birth. The song’s chorus, “Safe, for the new man”, comes from the title of Devorah Baum and Josh Appignanesi’s film The New Man, which tells the story of a couple dealing with the sometimes fraught, sometimes hilarious period before the arrival of a baby.
Of course this is also an album about the way in which becoming a parent transforms your life, whether you like it or not. The journey to this new world began years before. Weeks spent much of his young life as the frontman of The Maccabees, going on to become a children’s book author in the wake of the band’s disbanding. His first book, The Gritterman (2017), came with an accompanying soundtrack and was described by the Financial Times as recalling “Raymond Biggs at his darkest.”
Now Weeks is striking out as a solo artist as well as a new father. He has his old friend Nic Nell for company. The pair collaborated on the music that accompanied Weeks’ 2012 graphic novel, Young Colossus. Nell, who runs the label Algebra Records and makes music under the name Casually Here, has produced, engineered and mixed A Quickening.
“I owe Nick an enormous debt of gratitude”, Weeks says, “He worked tirelessly with me on this music. It would have been entirely different without him there to help me realise the vision, tone and palette of the record. His writing contributions have helped ground my flights of fancy or reminded me to push further when fatigue was getting the better of me. More than this, he has been a very good friend.”
Across the record, Weeks’ live band can be heard in full force. Put together for a run of sold out shows in the Autumn of 2019 that saw the first airing of these songs, the band is a vital force. The beautiful, airy drumming of Caruso can be heard on Blame or Love or Nothing and All The Things. The deft touch of Sami El-Enany (Piano) is there on Takes a Village and Summer Clothes. There’s the freewheeling solo of Wilf Petherbridge on St Thomas’.
It’s a brave new world for Weeks. “You’re a beginner, I’m a beginner too”, he sings on Milk Breath, a song that returns to the disarming and direct refrain, “My son, my son” (why make it complicated when you can make it pure?), which hums like an incantation. Later, it finds the new arrival laid in bed,
“Lights out, lay you in bed, milk breath, big dreams in your head.”
“Drift off, you’re so new I still forget sometimes that I’ve got you.”
It is a song that makes beautiful what is often an intense high-wire act.
“This one for me is about watching my son sleep”, Weeks says. “When you’ve rocked him for 45 minutes and finally the wriggling has stopped and the muscles have relaxed and you put him down in slow motion and then stand, without breathing for another 20 minutes praying that he’s asleep”. In these moments, the singer says, “A cracked twig in the street below is like a slammed cutlery drawer. A car alarm half a mile away might as well be in the room with you. But your baby is asleep and at peace and slowly you are too.”
Away from the crib-side vigils, in Blood Sugar, the city of Weeks and his son’s birth runs through the record. “Gone the bell that rung forever… at least as long as I can remember”, he sings of Big Ben, which had stopped chiming at the time of his son’s birth. From the ward in St Thomas’ hospital Weeks could see the iconic clock undergoing renovations. He couldn’t work out if its silence was a good omen or a bad one. Stranger than that, for much of their time at hospital, Weeks and his partner found themselves in the very same room he was born.
In the song Takes a Village, London is the stage on which the adventure of parent and child takes place. Weeks has premonitions of them setting out together.
“Anything you want come get me, Baby wants the light of the city”, Weeks sings. “It’s better if you’re always with me”.
While on None Too Tough, he sings: “I better dance with someone / Make a life with someone.”
Orlando Weeks’ first album is a witnesses account of a life to come. With all its promise and wonder, all its fear and magic. It is that most common of experiences made beautiful. It is a new dawn for a musician you may have thought you knew well.
Label: Play It Again Sam