Album: Modern Studies – The Weight of the Sun

by Maria Sledmere

In quarantine, I receive a letter from a friend suffering the residue effects of Covid (loss of the senses – taste and smell). She writes on yellow paper, in curly hand-writing that stretches to the edge of the margins: ‘I long to smell pine and woodsmoke and coffee and to taste the bread I’ve just made etc etc’. Reading this late at night, aching after a state-sanctioned bike ride, I feel as though I could taste that double etc – its sparkling gesture beyond what could possibly now be planned or thought. As yellow is the spectral opposite of blue, so in the space behind the lines I read a certain distance: a skyward expanse without limit. I want to listen for a world beyond limbo.

The third studio LP from folk-rock four-piece Modern Studies, The Weight of the Sun, has a song about this: The Blue of Distance. This phrase is gleaned from Rebecca Solnit, who writes: ‘The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost’. Had I stared at the yellow so long I could make of it blue? Had it made me yellow, when I wanted the blue? This album, elemental to the core, seems to ask what glimmers of impression we seek in the mercurial space of the daily. Its cover art, rainbow stack, a painting by Vivien McDermid, depicts mood itself as a blur of spectral tints: where colour meets colour, thought meets thought; opacity and hue form a language of contingency, variation and transformation. A language of touch, accident; of thorough sensation.

Following the band’s critically-acclaimed debut Swell to Great and subsequent Welcome Strangers, largely recorded at Pete Harvey’s home-run studio Pumpkinfield, in rural Perthshire, The Weight of the Sun is an alchemical mix of warming chamber-pop, elegant melodies and magnetic instrumentation — from organ, piano, viola, double bass and autoharp to the theremin, synths, mellotron and harmonium. Writing about Modern Studies is always to accidentally find yourself writing a poem, piling up lists and luxurious adjectives, taking here and there an unexpected swerve. Drawn along by the irresistible harmonies of Emily Scott and Rob St John’s voices, like the meeting of waters, high clear currents and resonant, sapphire baritones, to listen to this album is to have a vibrational experience. To be captivated by Joe Smillie’s intricate yet lightly held percussion, Pete Harvey’s richly braided and psychedelically embracing multi-instrumentalism. The chorale, the rhythm, the sonic cartographies of impressionist landscapes, the gestures towards something deeper, sweeter — then something that moves, streams, rolls into light. Here, the veer of the weather; there an incantation of afternoon, a luminous arrangement of presence and joy. A folky assemblage of ambient sounds, a happy accident, a relish for craft. A scraped violin, a bird sound, a clang of gardening tools; a brother, a daughter.

To describe Modern Studies as masters of a sort of pastoral disco is to relish the paradox of motion and stasis that phrase implies. Pastoral implies a timeless landscape, a land of plenty and pleasant green, a looking back; disco evokes the chaos and movement of dance, the physical immediacy of now, all the while set to the queer recursion of the beat. As pastoral disco, if we’re rolling with that, The Weight of the Sun resists the impulse of linear resolution. To wander the world at this moment, at least these streets of Glasgow, is to see all forms beyond the human return to life: to experience the dance of the leaves, the city made over newly green, blossoms stirring in the air like confetti, light refracted through a dry ice of less polluted air. Spring is having its disco! And yet the machinery of capital, the flow of human bodies, has come to slow. There is hurt all around but the flowers are growing and the blue of the sky seems real to us. You have to wonder what they know, the birds and the squirrels and trees. Listening to this album on sunny afternoons, on grey letdowns of another reset into living, I want to collect the light that got lost. To veer back into the song of myself, which is your song also — a thing to be shared.

Something about the record feels open, generous, as well as insatiable. It’s there in the grooving stir of bass, in songs like Brother, in the cool disorientation of ‘Photograph’, in the acoustic fall and lilt, the grime and grit of Back To The City. Springlike and restless, these are songs of fire and water, post winter intimations of tiredness and pursuit, Signs of Use, of life. Songs of the domestic, the intimate ( ‘I know what kind of coffee you like’), songs of desire pulled taut and quite clearly over the day ( ‘I want the simple-minded blue bright sky’). Songs of being asked, songs of asking, songs of extending a caring touch, of lowering yourself into those heavy waters — staying with the trouble, as Donna Haraway would say. It’s there in the subtlety of these arrangements: their cosmic underswell of adagio (Corridors), traces of Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter in warmth and strings (Shape of Light), in reflexive lyrical grace, where voices themselves are ‘signs of use’ and ‘blue-blood tributaries’ run ‘just below the skin’. I feel the songs flow in my veins like a sugar.

A record of quiet yearning, bearing the weight of the sun and the knowing that despite this, all this, the sun will rise. Again and again. There is in this record a sense of plenitude, of reassurance among loss. Something always ‘goes on’, even as we find ourselves stuck or in crisis. Listening to The Weight of the Sun, you’ll find yourself carried always on in this way, thalassic, buoyed by chords, borne through rich imagery of ‘scattered satellites and skeleton keys’, gliding between the celestial and the daily, the sentimental and strange. ‘This is an attempt to weave something hopeful from it all,’ songwriter Rob St John says of the album. ‘Nature’ insists. ‘It keeps coming like an ocean’, Scott and St John sing on The Blue of Distance, an uplifting moment of coming to sense through satisfying pop hooks, ‘all because we’ve seen it through’. That refrain, Lately I’ve been trying to calm down acquires extra weight in these times of Covid, not to mention environmental crisis and all the domestic, local struggles entailed. Something of the world’s perimeter has changed. Did you know ‘corona’ also means ‘the aura of plasma around the sun’?

This album feels into the weight of that force, that light, its fire. What is happening around us: it lends texture to the air, the turn of the days, the very basic substrates of living. Whether this texture tastes of panic, anxiety, grief, loss or the ecstasies and intimacies of simply existing, knowing what it is to love and feel pain, The Weight of the Sun is an album that, perhaps unexpectedly, captures the subtle blend of all that emotion in our present moment. Its lyrical depth, impressive melodies, confection of many genres, bleeding hues; its tales of family, solitude, proximity and distance, its alluring interludes of whir and blue and shine…perhaps the ‘it’ here, this thing we’re seeing through, is the plasma of a kind of infinity we give to the other, ‘like a distant memory / I feel it for you’ (Spaces), circling back around the Earth, our hearts and houses. A twist of sound from former times, a taste of the ancient; a brilliance of April rain among ‘the grey of slumber’, krautrock and woodwind, giving way to rainbows you would chalk on the street with the wonder of a child, perplexed without school.

While quarantine tempts us back into a certain depression, a waning future, The Weight of the Sun resists, utterly, the loss of our senses, the loss of all hope. In closing track, Shape of Light, ‘the body is an afterthought’: I think of the impression burned on my retina when I look at the sun through the webcam of my friend in Australia. Her sun is my sun. We share that shape of light, even if we can’t directly look. I think of the red-eyed stare of my childself in photographs, before things were digital. I transcend, just a little. Beautifully, Modern Studies capture that oscillation: theirs is an analogue romance of something bucolic, earthy, played out in the fractal plenitude of a listening internet, an open sky, the heavier waters of constant connection, of dear blue light, etc. This is an album to hold, and learn to be held with.

Secret Meeting score: 85

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