By: Chris Long
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If you have ever been to Orkney, the birthplace of The Magnetic North’s Erland Cooper, and witnessed its treeless landscapes, standing stones, stunning skies and otherworldly feel, you’ll understand how it can inspire art and beauty. The band certainly did on their début, Orkney: Symphony Of The Magnetic North, which came out of a dream Cooper had and delivered a deep, dark love song to the archipeligo’s charms, myths and nature.
Skelmersdale, the rundown Lancashire new town that housed band member Simon Tong’s childhood, is a different prospect altogether, but that has not stopped the trio using it as the basis for their second long player. Optimistically titled Prospect Of Skelmersdale, the album arcs back to the hope that founded the town in 1961 and the influx, in the early 80s, of the Transcendental Meditation movement.
Tong was a child of one of those 80s families and spent his teenage years practicing TM in the town, but it was the trio’s final member, Hannah Peel, who suggested they make an album about the place. If you’ve been to Skem, as it is not-so-affectionately known, you’ll understand why that is easier said then done – it’s an uninspiring corner of the North, nestled between the bright lights of Ormskirk and Wigan.
Had the project been put in less careful and imaginative hands, the result could have been an album of poverty porn or a sneering collection of half-baked observations. The Magnetic North, though, find shards of beauty and hope in its unremarkable sprawl. Pitted with samples from archive films made about the town, the album makes a decent fist of empathetically telling Skem’s story.
Not everything works – ‘Remains Of Elmer’ and ‘Little Jerusalem’ aim for emotion and pathos but never truly grabs at the heart or the head, while the closing cover of George Harrison’s ‘Run Of The Mill’, included as a nod to the fomer Beatle’s embracing of TM, is every bit as unexceptional as the title suggests.
That said, there is enough kitchen sink drama and meditative mantras to it to consider it a success, particularly in the freewheeling ‘Pennylands’ and the cyclical ‘The Silver Birch’ or ‘A Death In The Woods” tale of finding thrills in the everyday humdrum.
In truth, it never hits the thrilling stride its predecessor did, but it does continue to show why the band are so interesting – carving interesting concept albums out of the landscapes that formed them as people. Quite what they’ll make of Hannah Peel’s upbringing, in Northern Ireland and Yorkshire, on a third album is anyone’s guess.