John Burnside on A Natural Disaster by Anathema: “A work of taut beauty and control”

From the Long Players series: writers on their most cherished albums.

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Back in 2003, a friend gives me a CD and says try this later when you have a quiet moment; and because I trust his taste, I do. It is by a band called Anathema and this, apparently, is their seventh album, but it comes as no surprise that I don’t know them, because I’ve been wrapped up in one of my austere, nothing-after-1971 spells for a long time; one where I secretly know the history of rock music ended with Roy Harper’s Stormcock.

Like all nerds, I start by listening for influences but it’s immediately clear that A Natural Disaster is its own creature, a work of taut beauty and control. What hit me so hard on that first listening was the title track. It opens into a quiet, simple lyric, lines that glide into an agonised yet still restrained cry of recognition, not just of a pain that will never quite go away but (much, much worse) a final understanding that this pain has its origins not in fate or bad luck, but in some terrible yet probably quite everyday mistake the singer has made, an event now locked in an unchangeable past – and it is this mistake that gives rise to the one note of unbearable urgency in the devastating chorus, “No matter what I say/No matter what I do/I can’t change what happened” that runs on and on until some kind of acceptance kicks in.

Why this song should have hit me so hard (so hard, I admit, that I crumpled to the ground and sat, awed by the retelling of a story of my own, one I had kept buried for decades); why this song should have changed the course along which I had been blindly stumbling is personal, which is to say, of no great matter. What does matter, however, is the recognition of time’s forward momentum, the understanding that, when you have made the mistake of a lifetime, your one duty is to find not just a way to live with the consequences, but also to find some sustenance in its aftermath. As Stephen Crane wrote, “It is bitter – bitter… But I like it/Because it is bitter/And because it is my heart.”

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This article first appeared in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special