Call in the Crash Team – LYR’s debut album (Mercury KX) in collaboration with poet laureate Simon Armitage
Review by Sue Wallace-Shaddad June 2020
LYR’s debut album is the result of a fascinating collaboration with Simon Armitage showing how poetry and music can combine, complement and respond to each other. There is often debate about the nature of poems and song lyrics and whether song lyrics can count as poems. Many poets have their work set to music, for example Britten and Auden worked closely on song cycles. Armitage’s poems bring to mind ballads, spoken not sung. His use of rhyme provides a natural beat and the refrains also pull in the listener. As Glyn Maxwell writes in his book ‘On Poetry’, ‘the ballad form, combining short stanzas and strong rhymes, is built to tell memorable stories’. The poem-lyrics in this album build on this tradition in both their content and structure.
The lyrics of the first track ‘The First Time’ are in the voice of a boy striking it lucky with a girl. There are slightly unexpected leaps of language and image e.g. with the colloquial ‘twig’ then a classical reference to ‘Troy’ and ‘cut to the chase’ following mention of ‘Graham Greene’. However, this conjures up well a teenager’s world of school homework though the teenagers’ minds are focused elsewhere, on having sex. The track starts with a refrain made up of four stanzas which is repeated three times in the lyrics. The repetition of ‘call’ and ‘now’, added to Armitage’s vocal stress on words at the line-breaks, complements the strong background music beat. The rhyming couplets in the main quatrains also enhance the rhythm.
A key track is clearly ‘Zodiac T-Shirt’ which contains the name of LYR’s album, ‘Call in the Crash Team’. This is striking with short, punchy rhyming lines. The music then intervenes after each repetition of the refrain, to create a pause when the accompaniment swells. This gets even more marked as the poet gets to the end, the accompaniment becoming almost religious in fervour. The refrain quickens in pace, exploding into the final repetition of ‘call in the crash team’. The whole poem mixes real (your bike got nicked) with surreal (an ice-cream wept) and ‘the sky blew a fuse’ and ‘it started to piss’. We are left thinking of an accident and possible death suggested by the image of ‘body-bag suitcase’ and ‘cardiac jump-leads’.
In ‘Never Good with Horses’, the third track, the pace is much gentler, particularly in the first refrain. This tells of a partner or relation who enjoys his hobbies of collecting. The poem references Damien’s Hirst’s unsettling art work (diamond-encrusted skull, pinned butterflies, sharks in tanks). The disconnect in the relationship is highlighted through the contrast of the narrator’s refrain ‘you were never good with horses’ and the image of ‘sugar cube lies’. Darker elements are also hinted at with the possible strangeness of collecting dolls’ houses, the idea of liking rocking horses at the end. We are left wondering what is really going on.
I very much liked the idea behind ‘Urban Myth#91 – Central Reservation Man wandering down the middle of the highway, interacting with four different characters: lorry driver, sales representative, officer-of-the-law, close circuit television operator. Armitage sets up a dialogue with each character in the separate stanzas. This gives us a wide-angle view of such an itinerant life. There are some striking images e.g. ‘greasy sex in the back of the cab’ ‘tea cosy the blue-light, sergeant’. ‘Wounded badgers’ even enter the poem. The tone is quite ‘fed up’ but also self-assertive. The background music sounds like the click of cars going over an uneven road surface, with the beat heating up when we meet the officer-of- the-law. The track ends with ‘move on, move on’ from the musicians which also reinforces the temporariness of this way of life.
Track 5 ‘Adam’s Apple’ is a powerful track where putting on a black suit and tie turns into a dramatic metaphor for hanging (the poems was inspired by the death of Joy Division’s lead singer, Ian Curtis). There are great images such as ‘play tunes on the ribs’. The music starts with a slow beat, a sense of holding back, then builds to a crescendo and release with the repetition of ‘Let go’. Quite differently, ‘Product Testing’ has playfulness incorporated in the music and a humorous conclusion.
‘Great Coat’, the seventh track, brings to life the history of a coat which becomes a vehicle for the character and narrator’s relationship with that person. The use of harp music works well with the introductory stanzas, percussion added later. I particularly liked the ‘turn’ of the poem to a darker place with ‘here’s a gibbet’, matched by a slight break in the music. Images of being ‘buried alive’ and ‘the raven flies’ then follow. The music takes over more strongly in the last part of the track accompanied by fragmented syllabic sounds.
We can even hear the scratches as a record turns to the words of the poem ‘33 1/3’ (the title is the rpm of an album) and the poem is repeated like a record being replayed. The detail of the extended metaphor works brilliantly as does the visual link between craning up the needle and lowering the hanged man.
The title of the next poem ‘The National Trust Range of Paints Colour Card’ sets up an expectation of smart countryside life. Armitage takes us through real or imagined paint colours. The initial refrain quotes the song ‘I can sing a rainbow (written by Arthur Hamilton and sung by Peggy Lee in the film Pete Kelly’s Blues 1955). The song has a nursery rhyme beat which helps children learn about colours. The refrain, however, changes tone after the second stanza bringing in a strong contrast with ‘poverty’s a shame’. The poem now works on another level with some social undercurrents. The poem seems to suggest that if we look beneath the paint, we will see something very different, but at the end we come full circle back to a pastoral image of grain growing.
Two phrases stand out for me in ‘The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog’ ‘Ever since you closed the door behind you’ and ‘where I stand in your affections’. They bookend what are two seemingly random lists which are broken midway by a sideswipe at multinational corporations. The music breaks too before the narrator give his own list which goes beyond objects. It includes items like ‘déja-vu’ and ‘one-night stands’, perhaps linked to memories of a relationship. This poem also reminds me of the collection of memories in ‘Never Good with Horses’.
Finally, ‘Leaves on the Line’ brings the poetry and music even closer to each other. Armitage reads the first stanza then his voice fades into the background as a singer takes up the poem for the next two stanzas. It is almost as if the leaf man has appeared in another guise. This poem is a fitting end to the album, bringing all the threads of this inspiring collaboration together.