Allowing yourself time to cannonball deep into the sublime and eclectic discography of Edinburgh-based songwriter Neil Pennycook (who released his first record under the name of Meursault in 2008) before coming up to the surface to notice how few others are circling the pool is potentially going to leave you feeling a bit disheartened. Is that an enticing prospect? Possibly not. Hopefully this review (or marginally coherent ramble) will convince you to take the plunge anyway. It has – perhaps inevitably, for reasons I will attempt to articulate in the paragraphs to follow – gradually become more of a fanatical declaration of the many merits of Meursault than a traditional marks out of ten affair.
The source of the frustration a fresh-faced Meursault devotee is likely to become accustomed to is, of course, rooted in how Pennycook’s releases seem to be receiving less attention as the years go by, despite the fact that he remains one of Scotland’s most inventive, alert and uncompromising artists. His songs range from delicate odes (Belle Amie) to brutal exercises in empathy (Oh, Neighbourhood!). They rail against gentrification (The Unreliable Narrator), offer perspective without condescension (Simple is Good) and remain anthemic in-spite of their sceptical approach (Flittin’). They are relentless (New Ruin) and vulnerable (Carry On Carrion). Cutting (Art School) and kind (Dull Spark). Hilariously blunt (Albeit Barely) and unreservedly romantic (A Walk in the Park). Surely a formidable, multi-layered body of work such as this should be celebrated?
Meursault were nominated for a SAY award for Something for the Weakened in 2013, but their most recent full-length offering Crow Hill slid under the radars of most in 2019, despite it coming together beautifully as a vibrant and ambitious collection of sharp and sometimes surreal vignettes that felt in many ways akin to the short stories of Sherwood Anderson, George Saunders and other celebrated authors known for zeroing in on complex, frequently overlooked characters.
Some of Pennycook’s greatest traits as an artist – his dissatisfaction and willingness to tear his own accomplishments down and start anew if necessary – perhaps, from a certain cynical, fiscally-motivated viewpoint, combine to form his own (commercial) Achilles heel. It’s hard to successfully market a project while repulsed by the concept of using social media strategically. Harder still, perhaps, to bend to the whims of a fickle industry when your project was named after a Camus character for a reason. As a result, the Meursault listening experience is undiluted by the months of promotional clips and general bombast we have grown accustomed to elsewhere, for better and for worse. The word ‘market’ is, in all likelihood, about as welcome as an inebriated minotaur in Pennycook’s house.
All of his 2020 EP’s were put out modestly, with little notice given aside from a few comments made during his weekly performances on Instagram Live, which are set to be replaced by a series of podcasts, gloriously entitled Meurshow. This approach is commendable – consider the number of low-income artists who have been forced to part with ludicrous sums of money in recent years to boost their posts enough to have their releases seen by everyone who already liked their page on Facebook, never mind by anyone else. Taking a stand here, and elsewhere, does of course leave Pennycook in the unfortunate position of reaching less people, which is regrettable as Meursault Vol. 1, Meursault Vol. 2 and More Barn! all deserve an audience.
Before we properly delve into why, I’d like to direct your ears towards Thrasher – track three on More Barn! – for no reason other than it’s beautiful, and boasts the kind of performance that is capable of coaxing a tender reaction from the stoniest of souls, and moving a writer (like this one) into abandoning all pretence of journalistic integrity as they implore you (as I am imploring you) to just buy the f**king EP. Open thy wallet. Cough up that cash. CONSUME!
Anyway… More Barn! is an exciting first for Pennycook’s fans (I may have, in my earlier indignance, given the impression that there are next to none, which is far from the case) in that it is a covers EP, a Neil Young (!) covers EP to be precise. A confident, stormy acoustic rendition of F*! #n’ Up was initially debuted in one of Pennycook’s early lockdown streams to the delight of many, while Hey Hey, My My also makes a welcome appearance, featuring a lyric changed to namecheck frequent Meursault collaborator Robyn Dawson, who memorably and ably took the reins from Pennycook to sing lead vocals on a cover of Donovan’s Season Of The Witch during a 2017 Quay Session.
Track three (Philadelphia) begins with a fragile piano sound that evokes the spirit of Neil Young as naturally as it does that of Meursault: grand, haunting and wounded all at once. It is a delicate, worthy run through a beloved classic, that harbours the sorrow of an abandoned concert hall and the overwhelming heart of a packed bar in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing but stars, fields and roads stretching out into the darkness like fragile lifelines.
More Barn! arrived in between two EPs consisting primarily of brand new Meursault material. Pennycook, like many musicians, had his plans for 2020 derailed by the arrival of COVID-19. A sixth Meursault LP (entitled Meursault) was due to be recorded after a now postponed tour of Germany.
The three EP’s Pennycook plans to record at home and release under his own name (More Barn! is listed as a Meursault release) during lockdown compromise entirely of songs that will later be recorded full-band in the studio. This is far from the first-time he has shared alternate arrangements of album tracks in advance: many of the songs on I Will Kill Again were initially collected on a tape he released under the guise of Supermoon, while Crow Hill was preceded by Fuck Off Back To Art School & Other Stories – sadly no longer available online – which featured a ferocious rendition of the title-track and a version of Nakhla Dog sung by Faith Elliot, who frequently joined Pennycook’s live-ensemble before her excellent debut record Impossible Bodies was released on her own label OK PAL Records, home to the likes of (the brilliant) Hailey Beavis and Lucy Feliz.
The sixth Meursault record will characteristically tackle existential themes, but much more nakedly than ever before, as Rats in the Corn (track 1 of EP 1) reveals the very setting of the songs (rather than simply the feel of them and the outlook of Pennycook and/or his characters) to be apocalyptic. Cities are burning, oceans are boiling. Pennycook radios “to anyone left listening”, as grim yet determined. Acoustic guitars are accompanied by a searing harmonica performance, charged with pain and purpose.
The harmonica often seems to be an instrument utilised sparingly and warily among contemporary artists (likely introduced on-stage with a flimsy Bob Dylan joke) – but on Pennycook’s recordings, and never more so than on this track, it feels as vital and visceral as it ever must have in the past. One reason for this is perhaps due to Pennycook’s unwillingness to be caged by the comforts of the modern-life we know – he has forensically evaluated its trappings in the past and here, in this new venture, he tears it down completely – New York, for example, is in ruins. His characters wander and drift through this apocalyptic world, in which nostalgia and complacency are rare, significant joys rather than the familiar quicksand many of us try painstakingly to avoid in 2020. Here, the simplicity of the distant past (an acoustic and a harmonica) proves just as frantic and immersive a soundscape as the jagged remnants of modernity (synths and drum machines).
Pennycook’s narrator in Sarah (prequel) delights in hearing “songs that everybody knows… She sang the Lord’s prayer, Hallelujah and You Will Never Walk Alone… I could listen to her sing that shit for hours.” The prominence of a song such as Hallelujah in popular culture diminishes its potency for many, and Pennycook makes the prospect of hearing it something to be treasured once again by situating us in a timeline where popular culture (from adverts and memes to the reality TV shows that churn out half-hearted imitations of Leonard Cohen’s original) is no longer entirely inescapable.
Quite a few vaguely apocalypse-themed records have been shared recently, most notably Phoebe Bridgers’ sophomore LP Punisher. What sets Meursault’s (judging by what we’ve heard of it so far) apart is how constructive it is. By stripping away what is easy and familiar for his characters, Pennycook reveals the great meaning and depth of feeling to be found in a non-complacent life that rails against convenience to the listener. He has done this before – hell, one of his older characters devolved into a sea creature in order to escape monotony and depression (Beaten) – but never quite this directly. Meursault records are always an emboldening, uplifting experience because they entice us into be more present and spontaneous in order to save off the kind of hollow feeling few other artists acknowledge so openly, and while these songs often feel like his bleakest to date, that only makes them more of an invigorating call to consciousness. “Canned applause where your heart once was”, Pennycook sings in Laugh Track, an EP2 standout. Emptiness, for him, seemingly, is something to be addressed rather than simply embraced as an aesthetic.
Meursault’s gigs are, naturally, as non-complacent as the music. Brilliant songs (seek out Meursault! The Live Action Remake on Archive, a Bandcamp roundup of forgotten treasures) have been debuted, only to be shelved for years or even permanently. Sublime arrangements of others (Pennycook and Reuben Taylor’s emotive, stripped-back take on I Will Kill Again, for one) are abandoned without mercy as Pennycook continuously re-invents. Aside, or in companionship with the songs themselves are the gloriously chaotic moments he takes things a step further. Whether knocking down an amplifier then jumping into a swimming pool in a suit at the climax of an acoustic set, or clambering into a cardboard house at the end of a Christmas charity concert and attempting to wear it as a suit of armour while waddling through the crowd screaming “I WILL KILL AGAIN”, Pennycook can be depended on to never, ever be boring.
A restless, euphoric, synth-propelled rendition of Neil Young’s I’m the Ocean brings EP 1 to a thunderous conclusion, and seems pre-destined to be a future live favourite, while EP 2 is graced with a heartfelt cover of Viking Moses’ Whet Stones At Both My Sides that has been a part of Pennycook’s live repertoire for some time. Past Meursault triumphs are engaged with, with Salt pt. 3 (A Reaction) arriving 12 years after its predecessors were debuted in Pissing On Bonfires / Kissing With Tongues. Even more thrillingly, acoustic meditation Another, taken from 2011’s criminally overlooked All Creatures Will Make Merry, is re-born as Another, Again – a bold, intoxicating, dissatisfaction anthem. It’s easy to imagine it blaring through the shitty speakers of a classic car on its last legs, cruising through ghost towns, decimated cities and sinister, abandoned theme parks.
Erik opens EP 2 and follows in the footsteps of Mamie – a standout track from what is likely Meursault’s best known release to date, 2012’s Something for the Weakened – by allowing a vulnerable, struggling character to commune with us directly. The disarming bass, unnerving synth and claustrophobic hiss found in the instrumental ensure this is one of Pennycook’s most considerate recordings to date. By utilising his soundscape to better reflect the headspace of the character we are empathising with, the song sacrifices some of its prettiness in order to be more respectful of its subject. It’s incredibly affecting as a result.
Returning to EP 1, Fib – which I have a vague recollection of hearing live around 7 years ago – has found its way onto a Meursault record at long last. Previous live incarnations suggest the song, a bare bones acoustic affair here, may be much grander and much wilder on the record. Similarly promising is the intricate, immersive and mournful Laugh Track. Pennycook has never sound as defeated as he does here – no light meets its dark – and yet, it could easily be a single, with an unexpected In Rainbows era Radiohead/early Idlewild feel.
Pennycook’s EPs tease a record well worth raising our hopes for, but above that, stand alone as emotive and immersive offerings that re-affirm the fact that he brings something essential and worthwhile to the table creatively. These are soulful, striking and seething songs, capable of challenging, comforting and elevating us all at once. Let’s share them around.
Meursault pt. 1, Meursault pt. 2 and More Barn! are available now via Meursault’s Bandcamp.