Radical Face | The Branches
by Aled Schell
In 2010 Radical Face, aka Ben Cooper set out on a mission – to create a unorthodox and intriguing trilogy of concept albums, loosely chronicling the life and strife of members of the fictitious 19th century family, The Northcotes.
Labeling this creative endeavor, ‘The Family Tree’ trilogy, the first chapter arrived in the form of 2011’s ‘The Roots’. Hugely lauded by critics, it told the story of the first two generations of the family and their many dysfunctions; maintaining a traditional feel with it’s detailed characters and through the exclusive use of instruments which would have been available at the time. From ‘The Roots’, ‘The Branches’ grew….
Haunting, ethereal howls of greet the listener on ‘Grey Skies’, acclimatizing them as they step back through time from the present day to 1860 – 1910, where this chapter is set. ‘Holy Branches’ tells of growing up in an environment feeling aimless and frustrated. Cooper’s ability to so easily dispense lyrics that feel so in character and land so heavily upon the listener is what makes him such an undeniable talent.
The Jacksonville-native’s well-honed ability to weave detailed narratives is hardly surprising, with a background which spans a wide range of creative endeavors outside of music – from literature to poetry – and this is plain to see on the likes of, ‘The Mute’, and ‘The Crooked Kind’. The former is told from the point of view of a protagonist with autism, depicting his struggle to be understood (“I just couldn’t make my words make sense to them; if you only listen with your ears, I can’t get in.“). Not finding its comfort zone at this level, the song peels back the layers, delving into the character’s inner dialogue and his parents’ attitudes towards him (“My father considered me a cross he had to bear“). It’s a lyrical masterpiece, and stands as one of the record’s strongest points.
Although ‘The Branches’ is a concept album of sorts, the themes are rarely too far from home for Cooper. Setting the record on the backdrop of a 19th Century family just allows a little more distance for the songwriter, as he projects his own, increasingly personal, experiences onto this record.
‘Letters Home’ is one of the few variations to the trend, and the album is all the better for its inclusion. This incredibly resonant track sees Cooper shift the album, writing outside of his real life experiences to beautifully detail a soldier’s last moments in life. In just four minutes it manages to illustrate the often trivial nature of war (“I can’t remember why I joined this war; I guess I wasn’t smart enough to see the game, and that no one’s keeping score“), and to paint a rounded and personable character which is easily relatable – in the end, missing the everyday things that make up life, the things we rarely value (“You would not believe the things I miss…. it’s all the little things that fill that list. Like playing with the dog, and helping father chop the wood behind the fence“).
Despite the album’s often-downbeat themes, there are genuine nuggets of hope to be found across the record; sometimes you just have to look a little harder to find them. Cooper gives with one hand and takes with the other; a trait never more apparent than on album closer, ‘We All Go Out the Same’. He tells life like it is, and that’s always going to be a mixture of light and dark (‘some of us will die lonely, and others in grace and warmth. But in the end, we all go out the same’) – and as the album fades to it’s close, you are left knowing that it’s all the better for both its sides…