Field of Reeds, the extraordinary third album by splendidly unpredictable British trio These New Puritans, evokes many emotions, but high on that list is a profound regret that “pretentious” has become such a terrifying insult in the cloistered realm of indie rock. Field of Reeds is an epically pretentious record: It features, among much else, a Portuguese jazz singer, a children’s choir, at least one clarinet and a hawk. The songs meander for upwards of six minutes on five of the nine tracks, and more than nine minutes on “V (Island Song),” which sounds something like one of Radiohead’s more abstruse excursions rearranged by Talk Talk. The vinyl incarnation is released, old-school prog style, as a double album, side four of which is consumed by an etching. Like we said: epically pretentious.
It’s also entirely marvelous, freighting the haunted fragility of The Blue Nile, say, on “The Light Ii Your Name” and “Spiral,” approaching the gloomy disco of The Associates on “Fragment Two” and “Organ Eternal.” The opening track, “This Guy’s In Love With You,” is so understated that it’s hard to tell whether it actually is a version of the Bacharach/David standard. If it is — familiar snippets do emerge from the exquisite murk — it’s one of the most oblique covers ever recorded, as if it’s being played by people who’ve never laid ears on the original and are working from sheet music retrieved from a washing machine. It’s gorgeous.
It is entirely to These New Puritans’ credit that it’s so difficult to identify a contemporary kindred spirit. They are, perhaps, British cousins to The Decemberists — certainly, These New Puritans are similarly unafraid to pursue their muse over considerable distances of twisting road. But Field of Reeds really does place them out on their own, as apparently surprised as everyone else that they are where they are.