Stuart A. Staples and Susanna Osbourne (Hannibal)
This solid little cotton-bound book brings together two practices: Susanne Osborne’s painted impressions of cloudscapes and Stuart A. Staples lyrics’ from the back catalogue of his band, Tindersticks. The pages open to reveal on the left a portrait painting of the sky on a given day, and on the right a song lyric presented in a manual typewriter typeface. The collaborators have each written a short description of the context and motivation behind the book. Osborne describes her daily ritual of trying to record through paint her observations of whatever was happening in the sky at a certain point in the day, wherever she is. Staples introduction is more revealing; he gives insight into the elusive nature of capturing and fixing words, while noting the similarities of his and Osborne’s creative approaches. Both use mercurial mediums; paint is as elusive as the written word.
I’ve only ever been able to love Tindersticks in very short doses – the first track on any new album is always exciting, guaranteed to o er a realm of possibilities, with Staples’ voice achingly seductive, as rich as chocolate in the mouth, with an urgent sexual quality. After a few tracks, however, this can err toward the comical and affected; I start thinking too much about Vic Reeves’ pub singer. It’s also almost impossible to figure out what Staples is singing, exactly, his baritone rumble of a voice slurring words in and out of clarity, partly a debt to his hero, another urbane but eccentric baritone crooner, Lee Hazelwood. It’s a little like walking through a cave with a guide; it’s hard to properly catch the words of explanation; so to be presented with the lyrics in a neat, intimate pocket book is as exciting as it is revealing.
Osbourne’s work is as much an internal struggle as the emotional trawling Staples undergoes in search of his lyrics. She has “a need to quickly re-establish a regular, daily working routine” with rigour and consistent engagement, in order to work with “immediacy, sensitivity and honesty’. Her paintings are a daily account of her emotions, travels and yearnings, which makes their union with Staples lyrics very pertinent.
At first glance the images are lost, lifeless swatches of colour (this is partly down to production values rather than a failing of the artist; the brush strokes are not visible, the printing being simply too low in quality to capture the painterly detail) – but the more one considers their ‘meaning’ and the maker’s purpose, the more they become contemplations, small points of focus to daydream in. This takes time – a commitment that a fleeting glance might not pay back. Given time, they prompt a slow-motion recollection of long car journeys, summer days, the mesmeric times one drifts for hours looking out of a window, the gawping distraction of looking and floating along with the slow passing of clouds. They are meditative and seductive, although I’m happily reminded of Baudelaire’s e Soup and the Clouds and his chastisement, for being a ‘damned bastard of a cloud-monger’, by his ‘dear, little, mad beloved’.
It’s hard not to hear Staples’ sonorous voice as one reads the lyrics. Reading the text is a joy. These songs, on the page, are as powerful as one suspected, although I’ll miss the game of making up phrases and narratives from the partially audible fragments. The songs roam around the painful edges of relationships, in places, addressing the hidden horrors that erupt in moments of heightened emotion; at other times calmly ebbing away from confrontation, skulking back into the world of debilitating darkness. These are lyrics not poems, so are less bound by the formal restraints of literature; they work as a raw, candid articulations of daily emotional life struggles.
Singing Skies is a hybrid – neither an art nor a poetry book. It could be just a novelty item for the Tindersticks’ fan, of which there are many, but it is also a symbiotic book, cataloguing two people’s trance-like moments. It is also a book that could prompt the reader to look out of a window in reverie and escape, just for a short moment.