words by maria sledmere
Few artists could get away with the audacious act of naming their album Western Culture, but if anyone can capture the bewildering myriad of history, the mess we’ve made of the contemporary, it’s Manchester singer-songwriter, Kiran Leonard. The title carries with it a simultaneous weight and offhandedness that makes for Leonard’s graceful yet pointed intervention in the conditions of the present. Western Culture is a compendium of math-rock rhythms and epic tendencies married with lyric grace, a philosopher’s gesture towards the sun that is also deeply intimate, enmeshed in the felt reality of existing as a human being in a ruptured world. Of loving, of leaving, of realising what it is to be.
Lead single ‘Paralysed Force’ captures this sense of expanse, breaking open with the line ‘I regret everything’ and culminating with Leonard’s voice soaring falsetto over harmonies and tidal guitars. There’s a falling backwards, ‘foregoing insight’, ‘to regress or push aside’, that moves towards entropy, a pushing through action, dissolution, clarity. This is a record about truth, but mostly about the process of trying to signify this truth, which is always eluding. An affective manual for navigating a labyrinthine landscape of fake news, disposable relationships and the daily abrasions of social media. There’s a lovely release, ‘I wallow and rave / in that sound of the day’, that asks for quotidian hope and joy in the face of overwhelming hurt.
The album’s oscillation between frenzied climaxes and the tenderer reflections of songs like ‘Working People’ and ‘Now Then’ carry us through the upheaval of everyday existential reverie. Leonard writes of hunger, unemployment, greed; the scorn we pour on others, the very ‘fact of life’ as struggle; the terror of change; the impulse to run away, to be enough, to be collective. How do we seek release in this ‘fugal chaos’ with all its noise and smoke? The obvious comparison throughout is of course Jeff Buckley, what with the prog rock flirtations, the impulse towards transcendence, a youthful sensibility for beauty and its lyric expression: ‘I feel it now’. Songs like ‘Unreflective Life’ move with an imperative grandeur appropriate to their subject, while ‘Exactitude and Science’ meditates upon a recent human rights lecture through an appropriately meandering piano ballad. In Jorge Luis Borges’ 1946 story, ‘On Exactitude and Science’, an empire is envisioned where cartography becomes so accurate that only a map whose scale matches the actual empire will suffice. You get the sense that this strain of reflection and scale, the impulse to adequately represent, to encompass everything with maximalist effect, haunts Leonard. Western Culture is a record which tries to map pleasure and pain, the micro and macro, politics and the personal. It does so with subtlety and sweep, it looks for truth.
In a Guardian interview from 2012, the French philosopher Alain Badiou says ‘You discover truth in your response to the event. Truth is a construction after the event. The example of love is the clearest. It starts with an encounter that’s not calculable but afterwards you realise what it was’. We live in a world of concurrent events: attacks and disasters, facile encounters staged by the media, corruption and war; a world of lost people, displaced souls, a world rent apart by slow environmental violence. But with records like this we can look back from the present, we see ourselves from the future’s perspective, we see ourselves as we are and might be. The album’s closer ‘Suspension’ is a cathartic release, a throwback to the wilder, energised styles of Leonard’s previous records, a leap into whatever ‘terrifies and soothes me’. In Western Culture, loquaciousness is nothing so much as the necessary rendition of this complexity, its bloom in a voice that aspires towards beauty and empathy, and therefore love — seen for what it is and was, and will be.
Western Culture is our now