I wasn’t sure whether to review Grit when I got my copy a couple of weeks ago. Besides it first being released 12 years ago, and even the reissue coming out last May, it’s like nothing else I listen to or that I’ve written about for this website. Although I appreciate that anyone who reads this blog has wandered far enough down the left hand musical path to worship at a broad church (even you Satanists out there), a bit of focus is still important. I think what’s made me put crayon to paper is that I’ve been listening to it a couple of times a day, most days, over the last fortnight, and now I feel the need to spread the word.
While there is a lot to be said for slow–burning albums or songs that take a while to work their magic, I think the ones that come out their corners swinging end up being my favourites, and Grit is certainly one of the latter. Full of belting dance beats, electronica and flowing Scottish folk melodies, Bennett had already combined these two disparate worlds throughout his career, but on his final album Grit, too weak from cancer to play his instruments, he utilised samples far more heavily, creating a full–blooded record which melded these styles without compromise.
Bringing together a sound usually associated with the older world of remote Scotland and a sound considered to be futuristic and the trademark of an urbanised world, nearly everyone I have raved about this album to has raised an eyebrow; I suppose it comes across as a dubious mix, and maybe bagpipes are the Marmite of the instrument world (although by no means are they the only traditional instrument used on Grit) but really the right word for such a mix is innovative.
On paper (well, screen) this might sound like a formula bound to go stale; although folk music may age far more slowly than most genres of Western music due to a wide–spread understanding of its ties to the past, Bennett himself said that dance evolves almost too quickly to keep up with; listening to some ‘90s dance, or watching Trainspotting, confirms as much. An album based on a novelty, made and released 12 years ago, would probably sound dated from first listen today. To my ears, Grit could be a recently completed album, and it still sounds fresh after dozens of listens.
The most upbeat tracks are, unsurprisingly, the ones with the strongest dance influence; Move, Chanter, Nae Regrets and Ale House all start with a sound associated with folk, whether an acoustic guitar, bagpipes or crackly old singing, quickly elevating into explosive beats. Rant reverses this formula, starting with a jumping beat and choppy vocals before aged vocals and a fiddle enter. It’s not just bagpipes slapped on top of a four on the floor beat, although this is done to great effect on Chanter. The pace pushes and pulls throughout, with room for both elements to breathe and play their part. With its gin–clear vocal intro followed by a soaring string section and a thumping beat, Blackbird is a king of the valley song, with the wind whistling and the sun beaming all over the hills. Although Bennett was a prodigious piper (aged 19 here), he was clearly also a broad–minded musician with great song–writing abilities, mixing in bits of Arabic music and piano, as well as several spoken word sections derived from Celtic tradition. Storyteller is the most experimental track in some ways, comprised of a long spoken word story with Arabic chanting in the background, whilst Wedding serves as a kind of mid–album breather, led by some scratchy spoken word, tinkling improvised piano and gentle cello.
I don’t know if Bennett had decided to stop his treatment for cancer by the time he wrote the last track Mackay’s Memoirs, but I do know that he died only 15 months after the completion of Grit, and this lends its mellow nature an added poignancy, especially given his death at the age of 33. After building up into the aural equivalent of a rousing charge, it suddenly cuts, then steps back in with a solitary bagpipe. I like to hear this as a metaphor for the evolution of folk music, conjuring the image of a solitary piper wandering the hills. The bittersweet nature of this album, which Bennett described in the footnotes as ‘my story about triumph in the face of struggle’, is heightened by the closing quote of Verse 6 of Psalm 121 over the cries of seagulls
The Lord is the shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day nor the moon by night.
I came to know of Bennett’s existence over ten years after his death, and I’ve never met anyone who knew him, yet when I found out he was dead, my heart sank. One of his remarks I’ve come across a couple of times is ‘It’s not how long you live, it’s what you do with the time you’ve got’. So, for what it’s worth, I think it’s been worth my time to try to write about Grit, and listen to it a lot more in the process of doing so. I hope that whoever reads this will do so too.
A short but excellent documentary on the making of Grit can be found here.
The old and the new.