British Sea Power’s latest release is the soundtrack to a mesmerising film by Penny Woolcock, which captures scenes and dramas by the British coastline from 1901 until the present day. Bringing us through two world wars, peacetime, industrialization and social change, with snapshots and snippets of archival footage, she tells the story of the people living along the coasts of this island, the film itself seeming to teeter at the edge of story-telling, film-making and memory.
It is a strange way to hear a new album, and yet entirely fitting for British Sea Power, given their history of recording in small coastal towns and an existential connection to the sea and its stories. So much so, that From the Sea to the Land Beyond seems more a collaboration than merely a soundtrack. Given that there is no dialogue in the film, and no sound from the scenes themselves (as much of the footage pre-dates necessary advances in technology), the musical soundtrack matters even more than usual.
Made up of re-workings of previous British Sea Power songs, recorded in Brighton and mixed by Ken Thomas (Sigur Ros, Daughter, M83, Cocteau Twins), the songs manage to enable and illuminate the film’s story-telling, rather than distract from it. Including The Islanders, Docklands Renewed, Heroines of the Cliff – the album is a substantial part of the film, by connecting past scenes of sailors launching into the ocean, or girls synchonising their swimming, with modern sounds, subliminal ideas and the sense of present rather than past emotion. History is brought into the fold of the tide pictured in the film, ebbing in with each fractured stretch footage or snapshot of a catastrophe. It has not simply paid attention to the subject; it has become it.
The collaboration between the film and the music is so successful, in fact, that it is hard to describe the music without noting the scenes: crowds on a promenade, two people struggling to paddle a boat a few yards from the beach; women in grand hats looking out to sea; men fighting in the sand, troops marching nearby, planes dropping bombs into the sea; girls diving from up high, children building sandcastles, couples waltzing, waves crashing. Seagulls, German bombers, Navy sailors, émigrés seeing British shore for the first time, soldiers running onto the shore with rucksacks; synchronized swimmers and tourists on their weekends in Brighton; oil rigs and shellfish; gales in Blackpool threatening to send the scantily clad girls into the sea. The music pulls its audience into this past, as if it is a personal memory reignited by an unexpected face or an intoxicating scent. Romantic, mystifying, and stirring a kind of modern mythology, British Sea Power have shown an instinctive and intuitive integration with their muse.
Despite living by the sea nearly all my life, I sometimes forget that it is there, or that “Britain” is one vague grouping of islands (and parts of islands), and I doubt I am alone in that forgetting. This album, and the film it comes with, remember not only a century of history, or common memories, but also the fact that we are a people surrounded by oceans, tides and depths. There is a little fear in this, perhaps – the slight feeling that those edges may collapse in on a little island country like this, any day, and swallow us into those enticing, terrifying depths. As the album goes on, the music comes to be the sea, and the images the land, and the people on it – tiptoeing, diving, or falling into the abyss located a few steps from the promenade, a few steps from children building sandcastles. Wistful and romantic, the album recalls not only the history told in the film, but also the memories and recollections of whoever drifts into it.
On this occasion, for this listener, that is Scottish sea birds, walking home in the dark after dinner at the Ship Inn with a new love; waking to sea air, and running across East Sands in the morning. Listening to the gales, escaping the towns, and reading Fitzgerald books in summer, one last page especially apt: “… The orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning ——So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”