It’s impossible to describe Alex Neilson’s second solo album Otterburn (the follow up to Alex’s debut album, Vermillion) without first addressing the cataclysmic event that led up to it. On the 29th of April 2017, Alex’s brother Alastair died peacefully and unexpectedly in his sleep on his canal boat in Leeds. The youngest of three boys, Alastair embodied all his family’s best qualities and was a charming and spontaneous friend to anyone lucky enough to cross his path.
The trope that heartbreak yields an artist’s best work is a tired one, but what of bereavement? Grief is a complex monster. For those skilled at building songs, it can provide a new set of tools and floor plans. Would this album have been the same without the trauma Alex experienced? Undoubtedly not. Otterburn heaves with despair, but brings with it too an idiosyncratic sense of the comic. Gallows humour seems too mild a term when Neilson croons: “The clouds disperse / Without priority or care / He’s gone they seem to say / But knock once if you’re still there”.
But there are other kinds of sorrow here too.
The Frankenstein’s child of Roots-era Everly Brothers and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, “Amy, May I?” is a genre-bending paean to masochistic love. It foregrounds some supremely wigged-out guitar from Stevie Jackson (Belle & Sebastian), while Neilson eschews his signature breathy, meandering vocal style for something altogether more strapping, barking the line: “You came on like a nervous reaction / My teeth get hard and my dick starts chattering…”. Other highlights include the title track (a bucolic elegy to Alastair’s canal boat), “The Cruel Rule” (Diazepam Dylan), “Master” (a dirge-like waltz that’s the lyrical equivalent of a game of musical chairs on the Titanic), and the heartrending album closer “Smoke and Memory”.
Otterburn reunites Alex with a couple of his Trembling Bells band mates; Lavinia Blackwall – her voice as true as church bells – and Mike Hastings – who is reaching Brian Jones levels of multi-instrumentalist brilliance. But this is a very different beast to the Bells.
Otterburn has an ad-hoc intimacy and ability to make the epic seem small and the small seem epic that pitches it closer to Desire-era Dylan than Folk Rock aristocracy. The rest of the assembled company (Alasdair Roberts, Dave McGowan, Rory Haye et al) are among Scotland’s finest.
Forged in pain and made in Glasgow, making a very decent case for the old adage about the cream rising to the top. Lap it up.