The Owl’s Map
early every American born within the past 40 years has had the realization that Ernie and Bert, the felt-faced cohabitants of Sesame Street, were probably gay. As kids, we didn’t know and couldn’t have cared; if we were going to learn division, having a jigging puppet to teach us was a cupful of sugar. Post-puberty, these facts start to rise up as hallucinations—I was counseled on the values of friendship by a massive canary and never thought twice. The subtle strangeness of public television and instructional film isn’t limited to children’s shows; I’ve spent nights—literally, eight hours—slowly drooling in front of BBC documentaries like The Life of Birds or Jacques Cousteau episodes on VHS. What shrub will odd little David Attenborough pop out from next? What seemingly fanciful journey will Jacques and his crew conduct fathoms below the surface of the ocean today? And, of course, what will soundtrack it?
The British label Ghost Box would very much like to weird you out to the rhythms of these half-remembrances; to say yes, some of the most otherworldly records you will ever hear were commissioned by a bureaucrat at a national arts council; yes, sometimes mood music can also be head music; yes, Satanists wear tweed. In cobbling together the neutered, institutional sounds of commercial public broadcasting with twists of folk arcana, ambient, and streaks of the occult, the four artists on Ghost Box have managed to make a new strain of psychedelia—instead of your intellect or perception, they want to trash your cultural memory.
Jim Jupp’s previous album as the Belbury Poly, The Willows, was a deep dive into pastoral muzak that suggested Boards of Canada free from their distancing, pre-fab sonic decay—the thing that made them safe and cool in the first place. Chintzy synths spilled into zither and melodica lines; recalibrated samples of hundred-year-old vocals were trapped like an EVP reading of an old English cottage. A little night music.
The Owl’s Map is significantly more diverse than The Willows. And while much of Ghost Box’s project rests on the stylistic reanimation of Old, Weird referents, some of the material towards the end of the album—particularly the kitschy regalia of “Lord Belbury’s Folly,” the Broadcast vamp of “Scarlet Ceremony,” and the vocoder jingle of “Your Way Today”—loll like good exercises rather than the dark, nuanced music Jupp is capable of.
But the album’s variety turns out to be its strongest suit. Itty-bitty Ghost Box has accidentally squeezed out its first compilation. The tense webs of The Willows reappear in “The Moonlawn,” the thrilling sample Ouija of the Focus Group haunts “Pan’s Garden,” the dark ambiences of Eric Zann get balled up into gorgeous Enoisms on “The People,” and the Advisory Circle’s fanfares for brave new worlds of progress—first nicked from Yellow Magic Orchestra—herald “The New Mobility.” And Jupp, to the best of his ability, makes these things his own.
Belbury Poly’s music, while ripe with anodyne melodies and soft-toothed waveforms, is unsettling. What unsettles, of course, isn’t just the thought that all the snoozer science reels called to memory were actually much more quietly batshit and fascinating than I’d ever realized as a kid. It’s the possibility that my memory has distorted it even further, that my reaction to Jupp’s music is itself queasy, misfired nostalgia. Heaven only knows how I’d squirm in Big Bird’s arms today.