I have this one friend – we’ll call him Jock – whom I class as a ‘once-in-a-while’ friend. You should know the type: a little too loud and a little too abrasive to spend a large amount of time with in a short space of time. They might be self-centred; they might be overly-confident (Jock is both). You enjoy their presence for an afternoon, maybe a weekend. You listen to their theatrical stories that aren’t as comical as they first proposed, and you indulge their excitable whims, but it has to come to an abrupt end before you’re overloaded. (If you don’t know the type of friend I’m referring to, be cautious, it might be you.)
The music of Alex Rex is to me, in many ways, Jock. The solo project of the accomplished Alex Neilson, collaborator of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Current 93, acclaimed avant-garde drummer, and the main songwriter of folk-rock outfit Trembling Bells, his fourth album under this name, Paradise, is imaginative and overwhelming, raucous and restless (let it be known that there are no assumptions being made about Neilson himself, who is probably a lovely person). In Paradise everything but the kitchen sink is thrown into the mix; the effort is to be admired, certainly, with allowances for weariness by the end.
The album was recorded under lockdown with intriguing conditions placed upon proceedings: Neilson only allowed three takes for each song, which is why the whole thing sounds nicely spontaneous and loose, akin to a live show. He’s backed by Lavinia Blackwall, working with his former Bells bandmate for the first time since the end of that band (they are also joined by frequent collaborators Marco Rea and Rory Haye).
Previous Alex Rex albums have been dark and bleak, and while such an atmosphere remains in Paradise, a vivid sense of spirited positivity emerges too. Neilson feels like an unreliable narrator as you listen, unsure which of his emotions to believe as truth. Considering that the very first line of the album is a cheerily-sung “Lord, I can’t stand what I’ve become,” self-reflection immediately dissolving into droll self-loathing, it’s no surprise the uncertainty that follows. Everything is done with a wry wink and knowing nod. It means that a track like “I Remember”, which employs slow and solemn jangling guitar and ‘eyes-closed-singing-to-the-sky’ delivery, is difficult to guess its true intentions.
Neilson is more pithy than witty in the songwriting, with curious imagery dotted throughout. “Scandalise The Birds” begins with the cutting, “All my favourite trees are dead trees,” before continuing into a macabre narrative about plotting birds who Neilson (or our narrator) discusses baking into a pie; “Man is a villain / Who calls him a villain is a villain”, he notes in “Man Is A Villain”.
Several of the songs are declaratively theatrical. “The Dark Inside The Shadow” crashes and booms, aided by Neilson’s roaring vocals. The grating ditty “What’s Shouted In The Dark (The Dark Shouts Back)” sees him perform like an irritating bandleader, interjecting with chaotic energy. “I love the sound of breaking dreams”, he roars before, you guessed it, the actual sound of breaking glass can be heard. It’s why the folksy ballad “The Great Experiment”, which reduces the raggedness tenderly amidst simple contemplation, is appreciated. An ominous swaying wind floats through the fascinating gothic folk track “Funeral Bouquet”. Kacy Lee Anderson later duets delightfully in the rousing “Black Peonies”.
I should have noted something else about Jock: they are a genuine dear friend. Their company, for that short time, is appreciated and enjoyed, and this is the experience of listening to Alex Rex in Paradise. It’s a vibrant and vivid piece of art, distinct from any apparent contemporaries or competitors. Neilson invites you into his playful world, seemingly both collapsing into itself and expanding outward, and you feel better for having received the invitation. Just let’s give it a few months before we hear from each other again, ok?