The Incredible String Band – The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
It has been nearly 40 years since the issuance of The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion. Since that time, the noble beard has been tossed about from Ringo Starr to Robin Williamson to Brad Delp to Dusty Hill—eliding the twenty-year period of Smooth Reckoning—to that nice sociology major down the hall. Yet more notably, the wheel of folk tradition—as far as “indie” is concerned—has turned from Britain to America. The formalism of Anglocentric folk, though it was unraveling in the hands of the Incredibles (among others) has been supplanted by a chancier, more weightless muse.
Immaterial, I guess. The core duo of the Incredible String Band is Williamson and Mike Heron, and The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter is largely regarded as their greatest work, their equivalent to Dylan's Free Trade Hall, wherein they slipped the bonds of folk for the heady joys of psychedelia. But on The 5000 Spirits—their second record, the first recorded without co-founder Clive Palmer (who went on to more Quaker pastures as the leader of Clive’s Original Band)—the Incredibles hit with a long-player chock-a-block with charms.
The group had split prior to the release of The 5000 Spirits. While Palmer traveled to Afghanistan, Williamson headed to Morocco. When he and Heron re-convened the Incredibles, Robin’s globetrotting began to show in the band’s sound. The constant shifts between Western and Eastern scales, both vocally and on guitar, belie an outfit skilled enough to camouflage its sparseness with a bag of songwriters’ sleights of hand. “The Eyes of Fate,” for instance, with its lyric pitched halfway between “See Emily Play” and the I Ching, might have drifted into the fog were it not for the two druidic rounds of “ory, ory” and the cliffhanging end. The monotone stanzas of “Painting Box” are punctured by Indian flourishes on the six-string, a deft precursor to the sweetly harmonized refrain.
5000 Spirits was no isolated sylvan glen. The Incredibles paid an homage to Dylan in the verses of “No Sleep Blues,” not only in a reference to “hard rain,” but in the sly, playful lyrics: “There's mayhem in this mansion / Since the cows were coming home / With delirium no sleepum / In a cloud of nylon foam…” Dylan looms to a similar extent and fashion on the album as a whole; Robin and Mike adapted his poetical approach to genuinely groundbreaking arrangements and ramblin’, ragged harmonies. “It’s all right,” they wail in “Blues for the Muse,” “we’re in the graaaaaveyard now,” all but predicting the gleeful fatalism of Jack Fate’s millennial years.
Dylan even finds himself name-checked in the ultimate track, a piss-take on curating the 1960s (this album, one must remember, was released in ‘67). Williamson sings from the perspective of a nonagenarian, hoarding food tins, reminiscing about World War III, and spinning tales about his first million. The duo tear into the ironically mocking chorus: “But hey, you young people, well I just do not know / And I can't even understand you / When you try to talk slow.”
Ah, but love talk was aces in the Incredibles’ hands. Later covered by Judy Collins, “First Girl I Ever Loved” may be, with Daughter’s “A Very Cellular Song,” the ISB’s most well-known song. Startling in its comparative directness, it’s a tender look back on the narrator’s teenage years. “Well, we parted so hard,” Williamson grins, “Me, rushing round Britain with a guitar / Making love to people / That I didn't even like to see…” Add to it a gutter-drip guitar figure and Danny Thompson’s sonorous bass, and you have a track that nearly single-handedly grants its enclosing album classic status. But then I’d be neglecting “Gently Tender,” an aptly-titled work that finds Heron weaving sitar-like bits and makes time for mad ecstatic babble. Backing vocals by Robin’s girlfriend Licorice McKechnie (damn hippies).
And when things got utterly English, well, that’s the glint. Heron’s “Hedgehog’s Song” cheerily rides on the conceit that an insectivore is supplying him relationship advice. Opener “Chinese White” is a simple entropic sketch on sawing fiddle and acoustic guitar, the fiddle ever-threatening to veer out of bounds, even as the duo calm with Christmas imagery. Sure, the songs threatened the wrong side of fey, but even that’s a useful timeline bar for today’s white-Jesus freak-folks.
By all means, if you’re in the market for The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, make a bid. But you’d be best served snagging the both, and in my experience, the first disc may become your summer spine.