Is there anything more wondrous than a hot air balloon?
Man’s first realisation of the dream of flight, the balloon has, in its colourful history, lifted a sheep, duck and rooster into the air above Versailles, exploded over the English Channel, brought champagne to disgruntled farmers, hosted a duel over Paris to settle who should marry an opera starlet, and lifted daredevils in smoke-trailed flights of fancy. Though long-outdated as a practical means of transport, something about the balloon still captures the imagination.
What put balloons in my mind recently was listening again to two songs, ‘Balloon Maker’ and ‘He Tried to Escape’, from Midlake’s wonderful Bamnan and Slivercork. This album is very special to me. Its follow-up, The Trials of Van Occupanther, is Midlake’s masterpiece, but there is a homespun warmth to Bamnan that I find enduringly endearing. (‘I’m Mr. Amateur with a cupcake’, Tim Smith sings on the last song, which says it all.) It feels charmingly homemade, and generous without being at all flashy. The synths, especially, are by turns rusty and watery and gloopy and spacey, but always a little wobbly and imperfect, in a way that brings to mind those balloon-buoyant lines of Elizabeth Bishop’s:
This is the time of year
when almost every night
the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.
Climbing the mountain height,
rising toward a saint
still honored in these parts,
the paper chambers flush and fill with light
that comes and goes, like hearts.
– The Armadillo, Elizabeth Bishop
Like a real balloon, there is a deceptive amount of work and complexity behind these simple-seeming songs that float to us, frailly, through the air. The band are highly-trained, highly-competent musicians making lo-fi, amateurish music. The arrangement of a song like ‘Some of Them Were Superstitious’ is typical of their approach: unshowily complicated, full of intricate parts and yet pulled off with a kind of effortlessness.
So, to those balloon songs. ‘Balloon Maker’, the first, evokes a true sense of wonder. Those horns, as it opens, are triumphant, celebratory, like the blast of hot air that sets the balloon afloat. ‘He was a great balloon maker’, Smith declares, not with a flourish but with a slight, tentative lift, the melodic line carrying him up and setting him gently down again. But then, in the spirit of the album, the sense of triumph is immediately tempered: ‘the balloons were never known for speed’. This is slow wonder, not showbiz wonder. It is stirred by quiet awe.
Throughout these songs, wonder is repeatedly offset by tinges of sadness. The second verse of ‘Balloon Maker’ catches me every time. ‘He was a great balloon maker; then they outlawed all balloons. He packed up and put his things away.’ Why are these lines so sad? Why do the thwarted hopes of the titular craftsman make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up? Part of it must be to do with Smith’s understated delivery, and part with how the music continues triumphantly on behind him – in fact, on the word ‘away’, a new, higher-soaring melody joins the horns, lifting them up as though to compensate for the failure.
Perhaps pure wonder must be tempered with sadness like this, to avoid the risk of sentimentality, the kind of saccharine slush that soundtracks a bad blockbuster rom-com. Perhaps pure wonder is ineffective because it’s not true to life: even our happiest moments are tempered by the thin threads of other emotions. But the flipside is that pure sadness doesn’t work either. Even the saddest music is offset by a tiny trace of hope, or awe, or, indeed, wonder. The same is true of all art. The two are mingled wonderfully in the balloon flight that opens Ian McEwan’s novel Enduring Love, a title that itself can be read as both wondrous (‘enduring’ as an adjective) and cynical (‘enduring’ as a verb). Perhaps, then, there are no pure tragedies or comedies. The ratio might slip from 1:99 to 99:1, but both sides are always present, complicating the other – wonder tempering sadness, sadness tempering wonder.
‘He Tried to Escape’ hits this balance even more finely. I find it an ineffably moving song. Bamnan is full of what might be called nonsense lyrics: stories about how to make kingfish pies in windowless rooms and the like. ‘He Tried to Escape’ is no different, telling the story of an unnamed man (I always assume it is the balloon maker from earlier) and his failed attempt to break out the prison of the ‘monocle men’, who sound like extras from an Orwellian dystopia. But set amongst a tangle of interlaced synth melodies, with their brittle, shaky textures, the somewhat silly story becomes oddly resonant. Like the earlier outlawing of balloons, it becomes a tragicomic window into our own failed endeavours. It’s the nearness of the miss, I think, that makes it sting. ‘And as he landed just outside the gate, the monocle men carried him away.’ Again much of the power is in the delivery, especially that of the last line, where Smith’s voice rises and rises in a way that the balloon just couldn’t quite manage.
Balloons are symbols of escape and adventure (think of that magnificent take-off in Up), exciting, scary, while also seeming, after Concorde and Apollo and global air travel, somewhat quaint; they are simple and charming but also complex feats of engineering. So it is true of Midlake, and this wonderful, near-perfect, hidden gem of a record.