The self-described ‘post-clown’ outfit show that, beyond the gags and slide whistles, their approach can prove a fruitful route to sincerity
‘Post-Clown’. That was the hook that got me to listen to Gentle Stranger’s new album Upon Return. I thought I was over this, I thought no gimmicky made up genre label could sucker me in… but come on! This I had to try. You know what? I am glad I did.
Upon Return, the third album by the group, is an outstanding collection, unique in sound without losing face in the gimmickry suggested by the ‘post-clown’ identity. There are slide whistles, indeed, along with kazoos and toy pianos. There is silliness too, no doubt. The whole album has a circus-like sense of frenzied immediacy, with tracks clocking in at an average of one-and-a-half minutes, mostly establishing an idea and discarding it with equal rapidity. Their phenomenal live shows expand the antics, with an inherently funny range of instruments involved, raucous energy and comical performance art elements. Yet none of this inhibits a sense of artistic intent. From a departure point of clowning, the group create work that challenges the prerequisites of songwriting and reshapes the album format.
The more conventional musical credentials of Gentle Stranger, whose members also surface in Caroline and Shovel Dance Collective, are on show in breath-taking musical moments, which are tantalisingly held between outright ridiculousness. ‘Since the Plough/Kinclaven Brig/Morpeth Rant’ brings Prokofiev flight to a folk medley framework, completed by vocals delivered with a jester’s lilt, reputedly performed by Tom Hardwick-Allan while dancing upon a table. Elsewhere, slow-burner ‘Do You Wanna Go?’ speaks more of the Spaghetti Western than the circus tent. ‘Name of Love’ leans into a Brian Eno-style singalong, perhaps a nod to U2’s song of almost the same (which was produced by Eno).
In its silliness, the ‘post-clown’ approach taken by the band becomes a perverse route to sincerity. Playfulness often opens up new means of expression and loosens ideas such that they interrelate in enlightening ways. This was a defining component of Dadaist theory, and this and its lasting influence on art and music – through the Fluxus movement to Vic Reeves’ comedy – shows up between the more traditional song-like elements of the record.
Though its sound is uncharacteristic, ‘Dunce Disco’ encapsulates the spirit of the record. It uses playful open-mindedness to flit between styles, at first getting away with an appropriation of dance music with silly brevity before mutating the theme into an acoustic arrangement with a wobbly delicacy, tongue-in-cheek but still possessing its own beauty. All this in the space of about two-minutes, after which comes a pulsing synthesis of these two elements.
Through their experimental approach to song construction, the group anchor their influences across musical time periods firmly in the present. Like many of their accomplished peers, they compress and assimilate a range of styles and sounds into something unique and complex. The prominence of traditional instrumentation and folk styles and tunes speaks of the recent folk revival within London’s alternative scene. Indeed, the group members are intimately to this this movement as part of The Shovel Dance Collective. ‘Since the Hares’ speaks of this link, a traditional call and response between verse and instrumental offset by musings on the mortality of youtubers and the powering of fish tanks.
This bewildering collection that generally races through its twenty tracks is well worth your time. Beyond its slide whistles and jokes, beneath its knowingly silly ‘post-clown’ label, Gentle Stranger are eloquent chroniclers of our present experience, channelling its mania, its contradictions and its silliness. A rapid-fire record mirrors our throwaway relationship with cultural products and their collaging in callous algorithmic aggression, while its neo-dadaist lyrics capture symbolic fragments of this deluge of imagery. Upon Return makes a strong bid for ‘post-clown’ to be a defining interpretation of the modern world.