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"Gonwards" and the building blocks of the blues

Kate Mossman is entranced by a strange masterpiece, board game included.

Ape House Records

A couple of years ago an email went round telling you how to write your own blues in ten easy steps. “‘I got a good woman’ is a bad way to begin,” the memo advised, “unless you stick something nasty after it: ‘I got a good woman, with the meanest face in town’”. The blues is one popular music genre you can break down and reassemble, Mr Potato Head-style, from its component parts and still come up with something that sounds authentic.

The cartoonist and musician Peter Blegvad, and Andy Partridge of the rock band XTC, have taken this idea to extremes on their new album, Gonwards. The opening track, “The Devil’s Lexicon”, imagines building “a body of the blues” like Frankenstein built his monster. “Words, words, words, all nouns,” says Partridge in the liner notes. “We just collected them up for recycling.” Blegvad recites an inventory of evocative blues vocab (“rubber, coal, honey, kerosene, milk, dust, iron, blood”) on a backdrop of wheezing harmonica, chucks in a “lightning rod” and brings to life a monster – “The blues is abroad throughout the land!” It’s one of the most original records we’ve seen in years. It even comes with its own board game.

Blegvad is best-known for Leviathan, his long-running surreal cartoon strip in the Independent. Born in New York and raised in the UK, he played in bizarre rock bands such as Slapp Happy and Henry Cow in the 1970s, before solo albums revealed his talent for tightly constructed folk rock songs and the kind of lyrical surprises you expect to get from a poet.

Andy Partridge, the shy mastermind of XTC whose career has been dogged by stage fright, has also dabbled in visual art and written comedy sketches for Saturday Night Live and The Armstrong and Miller Show. Here are two leftfield musicians to whom the entire record industry probably looks somewhat absurd, who make music principally for pleasure. Their first full collaboration, Orpheus: the Lowdown (2003) reimagined Greek myth. On Gonwards, Partridge has dealt with arrangements, instrumentation, recording and mixing, working with fellow producer Stu Rowe. Blegvad claims all he had to do was “vocalise”.

Gonwards comes as a box set (though you can buy the CD on its own). In addition to the board game there are five short films and a mixit yourself kit for anyone who thinks they could do a better job. It is mystifying – like a box of runes or an Aztec puzzle, with talismanic images of spats, hats and guns drawn by Blegvad and a strange patchwork of mismatched fonts.

These days it’s quite common for musicians to release records with arts and crafts thrown in, as a way of trying to redefine “the physical” (as record companies call CDs). Laura Marling created a limited-edition board game for her first album, Alas I Cannot Swim; the rock band Of Montreal designed a “Dadaist” game called Songun featuring a North Korean trivia round (“guess the correct answer to a collection of erroneous and admittedly falsified questions”). Board games demand focus and immersion, the conditions under which musicians still hope we might listen to their full-length albums.

Fortunately, Gonwards the Game is easy and accessible (a bit like bingo). So, too, is the music. Blegvad’s chewy poetry has a nonsense edge, with the kind of word-play – rigorous logic applied to mundane expressions – that appeals to children as well as adults (“Everything has gone according to plan – well, where else would it go?”). In “The Dope on Perelman”, he’s in French surrealist territory – “Down from a cloud with a clang he fell, Jacques Cousteau in a diving bell” – reciting the lyric slowly over a variation on the theme from Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, with the first jazz flute you’ve heard since Anchorman.

For the most part, these blues “monsters” are as funny and harmless as Maurice Sendak’s. Occasionally, lyrics are darker – as on “Germ to Gem”, where, backed by chords formed of human voices, Blegvad reflects on mental atrophy via the nation’s favourite poem: “William Wordsworth’s yellow head/Nods upon my neck instead.” Perhaps he’s simply saying there are no new ideas out there. But this strange masterpiece proves that there are – as long as you break them down and put them back together, in the right way.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's features editor. 

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?