Matthew Bourne’s 2012 album, Montauk Variations, is one of those rare records that are compelling enough to deserve a full beginning-to-end listen, but soothing enough to guarantee that you won’t be awake by the time it’s done.
Its 17 songs are surprisingly varied, considering that only two instruments – piano and bits of cello here and there – are involved.
There’s “Infinitude,” a five-minute meditation on two chords that manages, despite the two-chord limitation, to emote a complete story arc.
There’s “Etude Psychotique,” a frenetic sprint that brings to mind panicky blindfolded squirrels.
There’s “The Greenkeeper,” which begins with the low droning hum of a lawnmower accidentally captured in the recording’s background.
The overall effect is paradoxical: an album that sounds improvised and yet intricately composed. Experimental but easy on the ears. Bourne has said that Montauk Variations was the result of “two years of thinking and three days of recording,” and the location of those three days’ recording (historic Dartington Hall) infuses the work with a serene, grandiose, and slightly lonely feeling.
One track that has become a daily listen for me, and which works just as well first thing in the morning as it does last thing at night, is “Juliet.”
What makes this a beautiful song:
1. The first half is anchored in fifths, which don’t commit to being major or minor.
2. Halfway through, in subtle little swells, the cello appears.
3. The second half suddenly does away with the piano, like a summer that turns into an autumn before you can even realize what’s happening.
Recommended listening activity:
Making a collage of pictures from a recent weekend.