words by tom johnson
photography by c. campbell
Growing up in a relatively rural area, a somewhat dead-end town on the edge of the moors, the dark of the night offered a blackness all of its own, the little light pollution that there was meaning the sky sat like an ink stain across the quiet night, a blanket interspersed with speckled stars, as clear as they can be. When the sun went down it meant little more than the end of one day and a passage in to the next. What atmosphere there was occasionally showed itself in dank pubs on payday weekends but mostly dissipated in the darkness.
Glasgow holds a different kind of darkness altogether, both in the physical and metaphorical form. Here the skies are never black but they’re markedly more foreboding; an orange-glow backdrop to melodrama and unrest, where the real darkness is found in the shadows of street corners, not resting between constellations, and the characters that move within them. Dangerous and exciting; in their own ways, in the ways of others.
As frontman of The Twilight Sad, James Graham has always explored this esoteric landscape, penetrating otherwise hidden worlds with vague, shaded stories quickly plucked and half-described, enigmatic snapshots with the details and context left out – and all the more captivating for it. Kathryn Joseph’s music is also pertinently mysterious although altogether more personal, little details of relationships and her own place within them magnified until you’re no longer quite sure what you’re looking at, like a grains of sand exposed on a single giant screen.
Together, as Out Lines, with Marcus Mackay’s tender playing and meticulous eye for detail bringing the whole thing together, they explore this precarious and knotty cityscape from both sides of their psyche, the seven compositions that make up their debut album drifting between stories framed for just long enough to needle their way in to your consciousness, and fables altogether more ambiguous and unshackled.
There are stark moments of eeriness; characters on the outside of it all, left to their own devices behind curtains shut tightly closed but with nobody looking on anyway. ‘Our Beloved Dead’ feels compellingly pulled from that pool, the marching drum beat like the sound of ratatat hollow walls, and the talk of toys coupled with anxious threats to “take you down with me” lending themselves to a track as unsettling and disconcerting as that suggests.
The flip-side offers a more nuanced and personal undertaking, the dual-voice delivery, and the exquisitely gloomy instrumentation found on the likes of ‘Open Shut’ so heavily stirring and intoxicating it pitches the listener as the unseen ghost in a stale room for two, holding their breath as the flow moves between the two characters, trying not to make a sound as the prickly unravelling resumes. When it comes together as formidably and fascinatingly as it does here, the Conflats LP grows far and above a simple collaboration idea and in to something profoundly moving in its own right; no mean feat given the idiosyncratic nature of the singular work from the artists involved.
Somewhere in between the first Out Lines live performance some two years ago – which instigated the project as we know it now – and the release of their debut album last week, Graham and Joseph also joined forces to perform a version of Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel’s duet Don’t Give Up, and in many ways Conflats feels like the even darker, troubled cousin of that song, extrapolated from, but still bound by, the proud lands they grew up in, where the salient point of the song’s message has been replaced by utter detachment and desertion; a landscape where the dank and murky River Clyde flows on regardless, snaking through the lives of the faceless people who built their worlds around it.
A place where we still belong – even more so when its presented as it is here; beguiling, crushing, with just a slither of beauty creeping in through the cracks.
‘Conflats’ is out now, via Rock Action Records