Charalambides – Exile


“Since you went away the days grow long…and soon I’ll hear old winter’s song”. No matter how often I’ve heard it, the switch from major to minor key in ‘Autumn Leaves’ brings an icy chill, despite the lyrics being for the most part the sort of sentimental fluff that would float off in the slightest breeze. Suddenly, I feel that cold hand on my shoulder. The grey clouds that blow over the song are enough to cast that phrase about “old winter’s song” in a Keatsian shade, you sense a recognition of mortality, the leaving of a lover (or in Keats’s case the season’s last swallows) being linked to that most final of departures.

Perhaps, in this moment, the song as first written is finding a way through, like a bloodstain seeping through a twee lace tablecloth. Originally penned in 1945 by Jacques PrĂ©vert for the score of a French film Les Portes de la Nuit, the song was then called ‘Les Feuilles Mortes’ – the title and source alone are enough to tell you that this version is darker than Johnny Mercer’s English language reworking from a couple of years later, but the words are blacker still. Sea “invades the sand and covers the footsteps of those torn apart”. Memories are “swept into oblivion’s icy night”. The leaves aren’t red and gold, they are dead. To wither, decompose, to fade, to return to the elements. To leave. To die.

A track called ‘Autumn Leaves’ opens Exile, the new album from the ex-husband and wife duo (it is easy to read significance into that, in context) of Charalambides. Despite Charalambides’s affinity for musical history, particularly from the folk and blues idioms, it isn’t a cover version, although the choice of name can’t be anything other than deliberate. As well as its thematic resonance, it shares something of the same feeling as the standard’s minor key moments, that sense of imminent darkness, Tom Carter’s sparse flecks of guitar adorning the track like the last few russet splashes on November’s near-bare trees. Sometimes the three and four note phrases even rekindle the faintest memories of that old song, before they die slowly into the night, as the track ultimately bleeds right into the following one. This leads with clever cohesion into an album which is predominantly concerned with issues of departure and death, with transitions and decompositions.

The fact that Christina Carter’s lyrics continue to be presented with increasing clarity leads inescapably to the ascribing of a more personal meaning to the words. Over the period they have been releasing music on the Kranky label, the clouds of wordless incantations which drifted through their earlier work have condensed, the haze collecting into droplets, the droplets now running like autumnal rain. Carter’s lyrics are part-improvised, but they constantly return to the aforementioned themes. As ‘Autumn Leaves’ melts into ‘Before You Go’, she picks up the tune’s thread: “One last breath on a highway, high speed….before you go…before you go”. Soon after that initial parting, there is a degradation, desecration, and death: ultimately, we “have to go inside…deep inside the earth”.

Even when she tries to move onwards, to get over it, singing “no more shall I wear the old black hat” on ‘Pity, Pity Me’ (a title verging on the bleakly comic, in the circumstances), the music refuses to follow: a two chord dirge repeats with minimal decoration for nigh on fifteen minutes. The closing ‘Words Inside’ has a sparse four note riff for a similar duration, all Tom’s attempts to blast out of this slough on a trail of psych guitar fail to reach escape velocity, being pulled back by the track’s emotional gravity. The other seasons in the cycle are but a temporary respite from the inevitable wallow in the deep and long winters.

All these thoughts sent me back to Christina’s own recent solo work. Last year’s Coupled CDR seems particularly pivotal, not just because its title track is revisited on Exile as the basis for the diaphonous ‘Without Words’, but because the same lyrical preoccupations are there too: “All the leaves, bearing white…remembering you”. It seems she has been shuffling through these particular leaves for some time now, and that the masterful Exile is the deep pile that the duo have kicked them into. We could be here a little while longer, as we wait for that north wind to sweep them into oblivion’s icy night.