Apparently familiarity expands space but contracts time: when asked to draw maps of places they know, people inflate the scale while also underestimating the time it takes to travel between locations. What does this say about the suburbs? I’m not sure yet, but I feel like it’s reaching towards something mildly profound about the relationship between memory and place. It’s certainly a phenomena that I can identify with – revisiting lately the places that I knew earlier in my life I’m often struck by how small they seem; seeing clearly the boundary of fields that in my memory stretched forever. The idea that ‘it was all fields round here (when I was young)’ takes on an extra dimension when you acknowledge that this was only in your mind.
I have spent a substantial amount of my life (mainly childhood and teenage years but also chunks of my adulthood) walking and cycling around parochial hinterlands, seaside commuter towns, and city suburbs, exploring and observing the fascinating, complex mundanity. The cyclepaths that follow and traverse the river Exe and its canal; purpose-built routes through new developments on the edge of the city to shuttle you safely to Swedish homeware stores; bridleways along the backs of terraced garden walls; estates of 1930s semi-detacheds; 70s developments modelled on heritage villages, backed by woodland and farms. An entire estate you didn’t know existed half an hour ago, all those lives. Joining up the topography, watching the houses get newer and newer (and then older again) as you move further out from the centre. I grew up in an end-terrace on a cul-de-sac only two years older than me, playing football and listening to friends strum Beatles songs on acoustic guitars in twice-yearly mown fields rather than municipal parks. The markings on our pitches existed only in our imaginations.
Whenever people I vaguely knew talked about ‘finding themselves’ somewhere exotic and distant, I always felt like I’d done my own soul-searching and discovery in the lanes, cul-de-sacs, and coastal paths around Dawlish and Teignmouth, listening to expansive techno on headphones while standing on cliffs or climbing stiles or turning down residential streets I’d never turned down before, finding something beautiful in the ordinariness. I often think that if I could have my time again I’d like to have been an architect or a town planner, to help create the spaces that other people create the narratives of their lives within.
Now, at 41 years old, I’ve found myself feeling most comfortable living on the edge of the city I call home; country lanes are closer than cinemas and just as essential to my wellbeing, but I can see the city spread out before me from my livingroom window. Streets I would never cycle down for any purpose other than curiosity or exploration reveal architectural juxtapositions and quirks of town planning that make my heart expand: inexplicable Victorian glass addendums on the side of houses; expansive ironwork wisteria arches; hidden croquet lawns and bowling clubs; repurposed youth clubs decorated with mosaics of 80s kids playing table tennis; kayaks in carports; garden gates emblazoned with multi-coloured seahorse murals; water butts, solar panels, loft conversions, allotments; impossibly narrow padlocked gates leading to seemingly nowhere; paths by allotments that lead to babbling streams where children skim stones and paddle and swing on blue ropes tied to branches.
One of my favourite of Nora’s picture books is There’s a Tiger in the Garden by Lizzie Stewart, in which a little girl (also called Nora) is bored at her grandma’s house, and tasked with finding the eponymous tiger in the garden. “Don’t be silly, tigers live in the jungle,” says Nora, until, of course, she finds said tiger.
“Are you real?” Nora asks the tiger. “I don’t know; are you?” the tiger replies. It’s heavy existentialism for pre-schoolers. Some children’s books are fantastical, about amazing journeys and yearnings for excitement, but There’s a Tiger in the Garden celebrates the adventures that children can have in ordinary suburban gardens, amongst the shrubbery and ponds. Imaginations can turn ginger cats into tygers, suburban sprawl into existential labyrinths.
After two albums as East India Youth, William Doyle has reverted to his given name and explored in song exactly these types of places, the places that speak to me most profoundly. The edgelands. Avenues, riverbanks, cement gardens, houses with names as well as numbers. The places where we’re told nothing really happens. The places you need to leave to find excitement. The places you need to escape from. The places where creativity actually flourishes because there is time and space. Places where imaginations wander.
In 1994 Damon Albarn screamed in frustration that “all the houses look the same”; Your Wilderness Revisited suggests that, actually, if you look again, they really, really don’t.
The shadow of grief hangs over much of the record (Doyle’s father died when William was only 12 years old, so songs about the environs of his childhood are of course painted in those emotions as well as so many others), creating an elegiac tone that never feels morose or moribund. In fact the record is profoundly uplifting, harnessing that strange territory where sadness and joy interact, refracting and causing each other.
Musically Doyle expands upon these ideas with cues and styles that feel to me like they’ve always belonged in and expressed the suburban landscape – that classic lineage of eccentric British pop, personified by Bowie and Eno, psychedelic but not pastoral, touching jazz and ambient, classical and electronic, but most of all rock of the experimental sort, arguably the most suburban music of all (I’m not a fan of Pink Floyd at all, but while they formed in London both Gilmour and Waters are products of suburban upbringings). Let’s not forget that while Bowie was born in Brixton, he did most of his growing up in Bromley.
At no point is Doyle mocking or belittling of his subject; the emotion and passion for these places is sincere. The experiences that happen within these locations are absolutely as profound as those that happen anywhere else: love, grief, discovery, pain.
That grief is explicitly mentioned in opener “Millersdale”, named I believe after the area where Doyle lived before his father died. After an initial verse the song moves through a tension-building jazz passage, before turning a corner and opening up an elated vista of synthesiser and forward-moving percussion. “Nobody Else Will Tell You” is one of a pair of songs on the album (alongside the Wild-Beasts-ish “Continuum”) that are as close as we get to straightforward pop, blessed with a saxophone solo and a lyric about the transformational power of just going for a walk. “Zionshill”, by contrast, is hymn-like, but with enormous, reverberating clouds of feedback that remind me of Fennesz’s acoustic guitar deconstructions, again dealing explicitly with grief (“Once suffered a substantial loss / go into the arms of field and copse”).
The centrepiece of the album is the extraordinary “Design Guide”, which starts with Brian Eno reading phrases seemingly chosen from architectural briefing documents: “Distinctive and positive identity / An understandable layout… / Active street frontages… / A sense of community”. His monologue is close-mic’d but with heavy reverb, so it sounds at once like he’s giving a lecture in a huge auditorium and speaking directly and intimately into your consciousness. It’s like the emotional inverse of the deadened computer voice delivering “Fitter Happier”. In fact the whole of Your Wilderness Revisited is like a positivist mirror image of OK Computer, flipping the idea that urbanism and modernity dehumanises us, and demonstrating that suburbanism can actually humanise us.
At one point Doyle sings “there is nothing we want more than for / a sense of space among flowers and water.” The mythology of rock and pop often suggests these desires are boring, conservative, that we should abandon them and yearn for something ‘more’ (exactly what is seldom explicit). But actually there’s nothing wrong with them. It’s arguably less radical to want excitement and glamour for yourself than it is to want peace and space and calm for everyone. Hedonism is ultimately a capitalist yearning; the socialist dream isn’t that no one has anything nice, it’s that everyone has something nice.
The main refrain of “Design Guide” is perhaps the key to the entire album; “Labyrinthian into forever”. It speaks to me again of familiarity expanding space; the suburbs become all, geographically and psychologically. With a snare slightly behind the beat, the song has a languid, repetitive propulsion accentuated by the way the main lyric, like Eno’s spoken word, acts as a list gradually increasing in intensity. ‘Repeat-with-layers-and-drama’ is a common trick of modern alternative rock (Radiohead, Elbow, The National et al), and can sometimes betray lazy songwriting as much as it signifies experimental tendencies and emotional sophistication. As with “Millersdale”, it’s an approach subverted here by an unexpected musical twist, in this case an absolutely wondrous guitar solo (it’s not often I type that), that would be almost Frippian if it wasn’t ever so slightly reserved, its focus on emotional impact rather than virtuosic intensity. It’s a genuinely magical moment that I want to revisit constantly.
“Continuum” and “Full Catastrophe Living” give us more saxophone, the latter 99% instrumental, a child of side two of Low and “Heroes”, while the former expresses an urgent desire to move outwards, unclear as to whether this is away from or towards something. Perhaps a little of both.
“Blue Remembered” and “An Orchestral Depth” are an expansive pair, both sounding, to my untrained ear, like they owe a debt to the repetition of Steve Reich. The former – more percussive and urgent – is literally about cycling around the suburbs to clear your head; at one point Doyle lists house names – “Everglade, Albion, Lakewood, Arcadia” – that seem ridiculous, but which are simply yearning for a bucolic idyll. After all, who wants to be known by a number rather than a name?
The latter is yearning and cyclic, and contains one of my favourite lyrics on the record – “that’s when all the colour turned an orchestral depth / even magnolia flourished” – which expresses to me – through delivery as much as content – both the emotional heft of domesticity and the borderline psychedelic experiences that can happen in unremarkable circumstances. The latter part of this turns a similar trick to Richard Dawson on “The Vile Stuff”, where he injects occult mystery and drama into school trips and the wallpaper of adolescent bedrooms. It’s the same sense of psychedelic mysticism I experienced a few times as a teenager, half dozing to The Stone Roses or that first Verve album and feeling the music expand my liminal consciousness. You don’t need drugs to capture this inner landscape – though we sometimes chased it that way – you just need a pair of shoes and some headphones, or a bicycle and an open mind, or a quiet bedroom and a tired brain.
“An Orchestral Depth” ends with a monologue by the writer and film-maker Jonathan Meades, not someone I’m massively familiar with, which encapsulates the whole record as he talks about how “the fabric of places where I learned about the fabric of places has remained uncannily consistent”, and how he considers “suburban avenues and riverbanks, backstreets and woods to be the greatest free show on earth”.
The album closes beatifically with “Thousands of Hours of Birds”, Doyle harmonising with a hundred versions of himself and sounding like nothing so much as The Beach Boys in space looking at down at Wiltshire housing estates, acoustic guitars and spectral harmonies about how “love happens to us / if we let it happen first”. It has that sense of deserved, homecoming calm that I find in my favourite album dénouements, that feeling of not quite being the same person you were when you set off on your journey.
In many waysYour Wilderness Revisited has been a perfect lockdown record; covid-19 has made the entire country into an enormous suburb, encouraging us to walk, or jog, or cycle around endless quiet streets, to explore the paths and avenues less travelled despite their immediate proximity to our homes. We’ve watched the rainbows in people’s windows slowly fade in vibrancy as lockdown progressed, and started explorations at our front doors rather than by driving to somewhere supposedly adventurous or scenic before beginning.
I’ve never felt like I really belonged anywhere; at school, university, in the south west even (my family moved here from Yorkshire a couple of years before I was born, and my accent is unidentifiable as someone born in Exeter). ‘Normal’ people have always called me ‘weird’, but I’ve never felt weird enough to be a proper outcast or genuine weirdo, to be ‘cool’. (I know – especially now – that this poor-white-boy alienation seems guiltily navel-gazing). But as I’ve got older I’ve come to realise that actually the suburbs, the edgelands, are where the real outsiders reside, the ones with obscure, half-hidden pastimes, secret second careers as artists or makers, who run unusual altruistic charities out of garages. Since leaving supposedly trendy areas nearer the city centre I feel like I’ve got to know more people, and while I still don’t quite feel like I belong I get the sense that not many of us round here do, which makes us an accidental community; my favourite kind.
I’ve also sometimes felt like my life has lacked profundity because of an absence of big dramatic events, that I have led a very normal, boring existence, achieving nothing miraculous or of significant note. I have not had a spectacular career, nor made discoveries or creations that have changed anybody’s lives. Dealing with childhood cancer and a global pandemic over the last two years now makes me yearn for that lack of profundity, as I realise that the big dramatic events are actually unfurling around us all the time, often quietly and with fastidious boredom, behind curtains and in kitchens and bedrooms unseen by anyone not directly embroiled. It’s a cliché mostly unknown to our younger selves – or mine anyway – that life itself is the profound thing, whether it is spectacular or not.
That’s what this record does for me; it captures and expresses the profundity of mundanity, the beauty of normality (as experienced in one small corner of the western world at a particular point in history). I doubt it will resonate so strongly for everyone, and that’s fine. To me it is extraordinary.