There’s no band with a history like that of The Bookshop Band. Originally a trio, they formed as part of a collaborative project with their local independent bookshop Mr B’s Emporium Of Reading Delights in Bath, where they would write music to soundtrack the novels of visiting authors and play it back in intimate settings. Since then, they’ve become something of cult heroes, with four full albums under their belts, as well as being asked to perform in bookshops all around Europe, and with co-vocalist Beth Porter serving as an in-demand cellist, both for film scores and for acts as diverse as Royal Blood and Peter Gabriel. Their pull has undoubtedly inflated since the project’s inception, but new album Stay Sharp & Stay Alive sees them set on branching out even further, this time inspired by exclusively American authors, with a handful of works transformed into their wistful indie-folk.
And to be perfectly honest, the music itself is probably the least important thing about The Bookshop Band. It’s probably designed to be though, very quiet and polite as to not overshadow the content. It’s all rather typical of indie-folk as a genre, with gentle guitars and cellos backing the hushed, waifish vocals of Beth Porter and Ben Please. There’s a little dancing lilt to Just A Case Of Falling and Showtime Fodder that make them stand out, largely because they have more of a sense of individuality, but then again the same can be said about the formless strings of Make A Story that does so for all the wrong reasons. It largely feels like an album where the precision of the instrumentation is of little consequence, instead acting as emotional padding for what is conveyed in the lyrics.
And really, the lyrics are where this album absolutely flies. For the most part, each piece of source material is split into two and scattered across the album, the first focusing on hope and the second on loss. It’s an affecting way of storytelling, especially with the very sparse backdrop, and the splitting on the two parts creates the dynamic of deterioration, one of engulfing despair that progresses through the album. Opener I Say OK sees love found amidst the diagnosis of cancer in John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, only to feel the sting of losing that love later on in Whisper To Your Lungs; the marriage of Ernest Hemingway and Hadley Richardson in Paula McClain’s The Paris Wife is outlined in its eponymous track, while the lamentation of its dissolution is prominent in Just A Case Of Falling; there’s the pride of being dubbed a war hero for the titular protagonist of Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk on The Undertow before the inevitable disenfranchisement on Fodder For Showtime. More than most albums, the construction of the tracklist on Stay Sharp & Stay Alive is absolutely imperative to maintain its consistent emotional flow, and while there are some that could be moved around to form a clearer rise-and-fall arc, for the most part it’s spot on. The fact that I’m Dust, a track with no counterpart inspired by Armistead Maupin’s The Days Of Anna Madrigal, closes the album is probably the most poignant way it could’ve ended, with a lonely, sliding guitar and Please’s stretching vocals careening through themes of nostalgia and mortality.
It’s certainly not an easy album to listen to, or one designed to be engulfed in a casual setting. Instead, Stay Sharp & Stay Alive requires concentration to truly glean its full benefits, but when they hit, it’s an album that reveals itself as a gorgeously fragile and emotional listen. As much a literary folk isn’t for everyone – the combination of performative tweeness and large inaccessibility to anyone unfamiliar with the source material will understandably put most off – but given the time it deserves, there’s an intelligence that shines brighter than any need to make noise. It’s unexpected and unconventional, but it’s a fascinating and engrossing listen all the same.
For fans of: Laura Marling, Katie Malco, Damien Rice
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘The Bookshop Band Plays Stay Sharp & Stay Alive: Songs Inspired By American Authors’ by The Bookshop Band is out now on Reimagine Music.