Retrospecstive 2021: slight return

One more look in the rear-view mirror before 2021 disappears completely… After the multi-course blowout of choosing 25 recordings of the year, this is more of a digestif, if you will. A few events and developments that gave me cause for celebration: one each for pop, classical, TV, media and film.

Bon ‘Voyage’: the return of ABBA

Can it really be true? – Old ABBA sounding just like ‘old’ ABBA, the four decades since their last release melting away with the sudden ‘arrival’ (ahem) of new material this year? Not quite. Better than that.

There were really two key pieces of news: to start with, the announcement of the ‘Voyage’ show coming to London in 2022, where a live band will accompany the four ‘ABBA-tars’, projections modelled on the original group themselves (now a bit too long-in-the-tooth for a punishing tour).

But in the meantime, they released an entire new album. ‘Voyage’, on first listen, sounds like it has fallen through a wormhole in time. A long-lost rediscovery from the vaults, with no evidence of any disruptive influences from post-80s pop.

Most of the hallmarks are there, in particular the slightly unusual lyrical approach. Yes, there’s the odd slip in idiom or turn of phrase (English, of course, is not their native tongue); but there’s also the off-kilter subject matter: ‘naïve’ environmental protest (‘Bumblebee’), calling out an ex at a rave-up in your Irish hometown – we’ve all done it (‘When You Danced With Me’) or elevating the mundane, practical realities of divorce with tragic, emotional heft (‘Keep An Eye On Dan’). Perhaps the only clue to ‘Voyage’ being genuinely new is the production – it’s a bright, shiny full-fat job with clarity and oomph.

And yet… there is more. Somewhere along the way, Andersson and Ulvaeus must have realised that ‘Voyage’ would be an album no other band has been in a position to make. (I can think of certain singers that have returned to the studio after long absences, like folk legends Vashti Bunyan or Shirley Collins, but nothing on the scale of an entity like ABBA.)

As a result, what makes ‘Voyage’ really special is its witty, rewarding way of acknowledging the past. Some of this is simple honesty – Fältskog and Lyngstad still sound extraordinary and seemingly harmonise with one mind, but in moments of vulnerability there is no attempt to disguise their older voices. But for the game motif-spotter, there are nods to the past that not only honour hits from first time round but show how far they’ve come. The aforementioned ‘Keep An Eye On Dan’ winds down seamlessly into a brief snatch of one of their best-loved numbers; elsewhere a line ‘You’re just here for the music’ could be transplanted into ‘Thank You For the Music’.

I also feel sure that album highlight ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’ – one of the lead tracks released when ‘Voyage’ was announced – will take its place in the pantheon. There’s the sheer craft involved in the music (the ‘Dancing Queen’ glissandos, the gradual key-climbing for maximum euphoria, the way the intro uses the tune of the chorus and you don’t realise until it’s blasted back at you)… with a brilliant lyric that uses an attempt to re-kindle a relationship as a metaphor for the returning band (‘I’m like a dream within a dream that’s been decoded … I’m not the one you knew / I’m now and then combined / And I’m asking you to have an open mind’). Clever, affecting and utterly joyous.

ENO-vation: English National Opera builds up a head of steam

ENO as an ensemble stole my heart long ago – I think they have the finest, most individual and characterful Chorus I’ve had the privilege to hear and I love the warmth and versatility of their Orchestra. Whatever their woes behind the scenes (no need to rehash details here), the onstage brilliance of the company remained undimmed and they came out fighting, creating initiatives like ‘Studio Live’ which opened out their practice and perhaps defined them further as the more maverick, guerrilla sibling of their ‘Royal’ counterpart down the road.

Now every arts organisation has been knocked sideways by a new threat. Nonetheless, ENO, knowing a thing or two about adversity, are yet again on the attack. Early 2021 ushered in their ‘ENO Breathe’ scheme, a programme of singing lessons and breath control techniques to help COVID-sufferers recover. This was recognised with an Impact Award from the Royal Philharmonic Society in November.

The company continues to break down opera barriers, joining the bill of the (mostly rock) South Facing Festival to stage ‘Tosca’ in Crystal Palace Park. They brought the ‘Messiah’ to BBC2 in a haunting performance (the Chorus replacing the audience, dotted about like beacons in the Coliseum’s auditorium). The Chorus also crossed the river to collaborate with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir for a bravura performance of Tippett’s ‘The Midsummer Marriage’. Other outreach efforts ranged from a TikTok collaboration with Netflix to a schools scheme designed to allow students to finish bespoke musical fragments, and we have the fruits of a new concert/recital initiative with neighbouring venue St Martin-in-the-Fields to look forward to.

Add to this an exciting and ambitious current season – so far including Philp Glass, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Wagner. In fact, ‘The Valkyrie’ was initially beset with cast illness and, bizarrely, a late council decision preventing ENO from using the fire effect they had planned for the opera’s climax. In a spirited reaction, they simply went ahead without any attempt to simulate the blaze at all, trusting in their audience’s imaginations. As a result, they drew no flak for potentially risking a sub-standard last-minute solution, leaving the council to, well, take any heat. The deeply-committed, powerful cast – including Matthew Rose, Rachell Nicholls, Nicky Spence, Emma Bell, Brindley Sherratt – neutralised any such distractions and held us rapt.

The James gang: a brand new ‘Dalgliesh’

P D James’s crime fiction, mostly featuring the sensitive, cerebral detective Adam Dalgliesh, seems to fascinate programme-makers seeking to put flesh and blood on the man whose late wife we never meet (at least, not in the books) and whose poetry we never read.

For TV viewers of the 80s and 90s, Roy Marsden was Dalgliesh, his thoughtful performance supported by the luxury of Anglia’s stately adaptations (the first, ‘Death of an Expert Witness’, ran to an epic seven episodes). Then, in the early 2000s, the BBC adapted two of the later novels with Martin Shaw. This is no fault of the perfectly credible Shaw, but he is so prolific I found it impossible not to imagine him about to judge someone intensely or, worse, leap over the bonnet of his car to give chase to some villain.

Then, in 2021 – and perhaps a little low-key and camouflaged on Channel 5, which is one reason I’m mentioning it here – a brand new series arrived, featuring Bertie Carvel in the title role. An all-too-brief run of six episodes (three novels given two parts each) – but hopefully this is just the beginning.

I absolutely loved this interpretation. I think part of its success is due to the masterstroke of making it a period piece (in fact, the plot of at least one of the stories depends on it). Here, Dalgliesh starts in the 70s, which places in context many of the situations that arise and attitudes the characters display. However, the magic that the series works is to ramp up the pace to something we would recognise either from actual 70s cop shows, or present-day short-attention-span action… and yet, somehow allow Dalgliesh to be the still heart at the centre, cool and (largely) unruffled, sympathetic yet detached. Carvel must take a lot of credit for this, his performance approaching definitive in the sense that (unlike the rarefied 80s version), this Dalgliesh could exist, steel beneath his skin.

Visionary: the ‘Sight & Sound’ revamp

‘Sight & Sound’ magazine has at times felt a little austere in the past – probably due to what must be an impossible remit. It needs to cover and review all the latest hit movies, just like its brasher rivals ‘Empire’ and ‘Total Film’, while acting as the British Film Institute’s journal of record, shining a light into the most obscure, underground and avant-garde corners of cinema past and present. And all points in between.

But with effect from the September issue, editor-in-chief Mike Williams only went and ‘blew the bloody doors off’. Most magazines undergo the odd tweak, or even facelift, from time to time, but this was a full-blown transformation.

Larger in size as well as scope, the new version of ‘S&S’ is almost a cinematic experience in itself, the shorter pieces at the front acting as trailers to the expansive main features. The design is sumptuous, with colour-coded sections housing new columnists (a diverse, intriguing team, given proper room to breathe) and a wider range of reviews reflecting longer-form TV/streaming and box-set culture, alongside its unmatched big screen coverage.

As much a joy to hold as well as behold, it’s a beautiful piece of physical graphic design, at a time when we might have thought digital information could have laid it to rest. Not so. For both fans and buffs, ‘S&S’ has become essential.

Washington state: Joel Coen’s film of ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’

For many, this might be an extremely early contender for ‘best film of 2022’ (it starts streaming on Apple TV in mid-January)… but thanks to a limited cinema release from Boxing Day, it actually belongs to last year.

I’m aware of the short-memory trap that can make something you’ve seen or heard recently feel like the Best Thing Ever, but that hasn’t stopped ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ haunting my brain ever since the final credits faded, thoughts and images circling around in my mind like jet-black crows from the movie’s ether.

Working without brother Ethan (currently focusing on theatre work), Joel Coen was perhaps inspired to inject some icy isolation into the film. Paring down the play to a lean 105 minutes, we see how the Macbeths’ actions soon separate them not only from the trust and goodwill of their friends and subjects, but also from each other. In his soliloquies, Denzel Washington proves a master at letting the language tumble from his mouth, credibly thinking aloud – while no-one witnessing the final seconds of Frances McDormand performing Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalk will forget them in a hurry.

In a luxury supporting cast, the stand-out is surely stage veteran Kathryn Hunter, renowned among theatre lovers for her chameleon-like ability to play any type of role, and seemingly contort her body in any way needed to do so. Here she plays the witches (arguably four – yes, four – roles in one) as something so utterly uncanny, you’ll feel her eerie presence hours after watching, despite her scant minutes of screen time.

If you’ve seen any of the trailers, you’ll know that the look of the film is of paramount importance. I can see why those clips were frustratingly short, and why the distributors kept so much of their powder dry. You might be familiar with the plot, but you won’t be fully prepared for one visual coup after another, almost every shot worthy of capture as a still and immortality in a frame.

Coen presents the film in pristine black and white, in ‘Academy ratio’ – where the 4:3 screen is more ‘boxy’ shape (similar to old movies and TV) than the usual widescreen. The look and format allow for maximum shadowy claustrophobia. In the same way that Macbeth is half-warrior, half-lunatic, a soldier who might be tormented by visions alone, Coen gives us a setting that is half-real, half-staged. We see glimpses of the world outside, when necessary, but otherwise we’re in an impossible castle, where the negative space is as important as the bricks and mortar, and the doorways, corridors and highwalks contort and condense as fate overwhelms the Macbeths and they disintegrate.

There are reference points – I felt Bergman’s influence in the fascination with faces, and definitely Kubrick in the twisted symmetry of the composition. But Coen’s visual flair, unpredictability (particularly in the murder scenes, which are never gratuitous but still pack a punch), and even dark humour are all his own.

So, even though I’m writing this only a few days after viewing – I’m calling it: a masterpiece.

AA

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