David Thomas Broughton
It’s in There Somewhere
By Jessie Skinner
The low-tech folk music that Englishman David Thomas Broughton produces never sounds like it’s coming out properly. That is to say, it reaches the ear through no small amount of distortion. But forgive the sin of low sound quality and the sometimes incomprehensible voice, and you will find one of the most alarming and affecting songwriters of whom you’ve never heard. Broughton is a troubling genius, singing of unease and fear while coming across as more confused and worried than sad or melodramatic. This is music for shaken people.
It’s In There Somewhere isn’t the career high point for Broughton: it’s the sound of him getting old ideas out than of progressing into new territory. It’s hampered by distracting instrumental interludes and experiments that are rather pointless, if birthed by what is obviously home (read: cheap) production. When that voice is let free to battle itself however, like in the commanding “One Day”, no amount of fuzz can diminish its power.
Much of Somehwere is older and less polished than that last album; it is an odds-and-sods affair spanning the past 6 years, give or take a few. Broughton’s voice on the opener “Circle Is Never Complete” is much lighter than usual — the song may have been recorded far preceding the deeper acoustics of 2005’s Complete Guide to Insufficiency. The waltzing tempo here seems to retreat at one point; it’s as if the music was actually unsure of venturing any further. When it does get going, it becomes a fitting introduction: murky, haunting, sometimes indecipherable, like most of the songs on the album.
The next proper song “Gracefully Silent” is more familiar: a solid example of the kind of thing that Broughton alone is so good at. Guitar and vocal splices are joined together, sometimes running smoothly and sometimes competing for attention. The lyrics are not so much poetic as singular and blunt: “to and fro, on and on,” “through the smoke I wasn’t afraid of death,” “I wasn’t surprised.” The technique, and its subsequent effect, is impossible to appreciate without a great amount of patience. A typical Broughton song runs its varying laps past seven minutes, and how much one gets out of this patterned approach depends partially on an appreciation of the human voice. Not in an American Idol way, not in how much one can project; the voice here is more like a monk’s — a thick, chanting style. Broughton’s confidence in his own words allows him to tread carefully with singular phrases; this is of potentially greater impact than rambling, endless poetry.
Searching for Broughton’s music is a scavenger hunt, the kind of which I have not participated for a long time. His best songs, like the brutal dirge “Lord Don’t Use Cusswords,” are often relegated to homemade discs distributed only at concerts. My frustration and hunger for more, since I first heard “Execution” (from his debut), are indicative of not only the quality of his work, but the oddity of it. It is not uncommon for Broughton to break out into a doo-wop melody, which sounds strange enough coming from a bearded Brit, and even stranger when he performs every vocal layer by himself.
I wouldn’t be the first critic to call Broughton an old soul — that is, his creations are a throwback. There is a reliance here not on technology or production, not on programming, but on the basic elements of music. Repetition and pattern are vital tools, forgoing the tendency of more indulgent artists to tumble mindlessly down a tunnel of showmanship. There are no guitar solos, no breakdowns. Every sound proceeds slowly and carefully, and above all I get a sense of precise craftsmanship and attention to detail. I hope someday that Broughton is given the opportunity to work in a studio, where his sound may not be so stifled by monetary limitations, and his mind can be given room to breathe.