The unspoken little ones: songs of December


The unspoken little ones – Songs of December

Reveal Records – December 3, 2021

Quietly, with confidence, The little unsaid have amassed a body of work that is on par with anything to be found on the British folk music scene at this point. Usually made up of four musicians, the group acts as the songwriting vehicle of South London-based John Elliott, whose dark, personal lyrics and skillfully turned melodies have invited comparisons to Jeff Buckley, Joni Mitchell and Mike Scott. July release Lick the lips of the future saw the band in their most accomplished and varied form, bringing us funky basslines, country waltzes, dreamy sound universes worthy of Peter Gabriel and plenty of unexpected points in between.

But for Elliott’s new version, he did an about-face, at least on paper. December Songs, as the title suggests, is a seasonal collection. It’s also an entirely solo affair, with Elliott providing a mostly acoustic backdrop to nine original songs and two traditional pieces. The goal is simplicity. In Elliott’s own words, “I wanted to find simple songs that captured the melancholy of this time of year, but also the comfort, closeness, joy of simple acoustic music in a dimly lit room, and the promise of a different kind of The coming year. ” It’s obvious from these words that December Songs is a far cry from your average Christmas album, but for anyone aware of the autobiographical and often moving nature of songs from previous Little Unsaid albums, it won’t come as a surprise.

Simplicity does not equate to a lack of musical diversity, and some complexity can still be found in the quieter art forms. Elliott is living proof that a well-timed whisper can often have more consequences than a scream, and on December songs he pushes that aesthetic to its quietly impressive limit. Ebb and flow (Christmas!) kicks off with an agile but sober fingerpicking, and the delicacy of the voice, all muffled excitement, recalls the best examples of Sufjan Stevens Christmas songs, without really venturing into the more overtly twee territory that Stevens often seems to enjoy. There is a noticeable sense of loss and longing here, typical of Elliott’s writing.

Fine World (when you can look it in the eye) is a more rhythmic offering with a propulsive strum. Think of an acoustic version of Richard and Linda Thompson’s songs (towards I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight) but sadder and somehow – thanks to the moving chorus by the fireside – more upbeat. With its minimal circular electric guitar pattern, Carol of the Hermit is closer in spirit to previous Little Unsaid songs, and Elliott’s attention to musical detail is very evident in the production – there’s a wild breath that seems to run through the entire song, and a cold little piano but beautiful in the middle. The short piece for downtempo piano Home video, with its baffling background noises, is equally impressive. It appears to serve multiple – and seemingly contradictory – purposes. A casual listener might think of it as a stop-gap or sort of breathing space, a place to rest between the anxieties and intricacy of the songs around it. But while it clears the mind, a song like this can also sharpen the senses and bring an even clearer focus on what surrounds it. It offers a strange and introductory view into a dreamlike world that the other songs describe so vividly. Later in the album, 5h Waltz performs a similar function while standing on its own as a beautiful yet simple piece of piano music, like something Yann Tiersen could have composed.

Sacred space shows off his talents as a narrative songwriter. The dusting of sleigh bells provides a wonderful and slightly uncomfortable setting: there is a touch of irony in a sound that is so blatantly at odds with the melancholy nature of the lyrics, yet it is remarkably evocative nonetheless. The sad, atmospheric December sun (full of raw, visual images in lines like “winter spills like new blood on every act of love”) is an intensely introspective experience. Family tree is lighter, at least in a musical sense. Lyrically, it’s a thing on many levels, proving that he can do finely drawn character studies just as well as an examination of conscience (and, in this case, at least, he can do the two in the same song).

Located on Christmas morning, closer Bodhi tree is a real Christmas song, even if it really is a Christmas song in the words of The Little Unsaid. There is as much rain as there is snow, and it is all overflowing with sad nostalgia. It bursts to its dramatic conclusion in Dirt and Fire, showing that Elliott is more than worthy of those Waterboys comparisons.

Although December songs is obviously a seasonal album, that’s no exaggeration. Without the inclusion of the two well-known Christmas carols, this would make a really good listening anytime of the year. But, perhaps against all odds, these two songs manage to add to the quality of the album. To Dulci Jubilo sums up the weirdness of the season, moving in and out of focus, the melody partially obscured by disorienting studio effects. In the dark middle of winter is a much more upright interpretation, with Elliott’s sweet and precise song perfectly suited to the lyrics of Christina Rosetti, who, perhaps more than any other popular Christmas carol, manage to combine the pagan savagery of winter with the Christian tradition of the Christmas season. Gustav Holst’s melody is chosen with fluid ease and without haste on the acoustic guitar.

Between them, these two Christmas carols are cold and weird, icy and fragile, and they tie the album thematically in a way that makes you wonder why more musicians aren’t trying out the seasonal collections. What makes this one even more special is that it was mostly recorded live on borrowed material, within days, from Elliott’s apartment. The atmospheric silence that is present everywhere was born from the need to play quietly for fear of disturbing the neighbors. But despite the limitations (or maybe because of them), it’s hard to see how this album could have come out better.

Order the December tracks today via: Bandcamp | Appropriate music

Don’t miss The Little Unsaid on Wednesday 23 February 2022 at the Green Note in London (Tickets)


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