Difficile d’évoquer finement la grâce de For The Grains Of Sand, premier Lp des Ecossais de Northern Alliance, vagabondage slow-core de bords de mer. Plus difficile encore est de traduire fidèlement les termes choisis de Doug Johnstone, leader érudit de la formation. Une analyse chanson par chanson en VO donc. A vos Robert & Collins !
For the Grains of Sand song by song analysis by Doug Johnstone
Wonders of the Invisible World
— The title comes from a book of short stories by a fantastic American writer called David Gates. We had a song on our last album, Disaster for Scotland, called Preston Falls, which was named after one of his novels. Wonders… is also the name of the book by Cotton Mather about the infamous Salem witch trials of the 17th century. These books are only very loosely connected to the sentiment of the song, which is one of paranoia and fear, I guess. Myself and bandmate Craig Smith have both had kids recently, and this song is kind of about the fear that parenthood brings, that the big bad world will somehow harm your precious little baby, and there’s probably fuck all you can do about it. It contains the line that the album title came from - "I fear for the little grains of sand" - which refers to the size of a human embryo when you first discover you’re pregnant. Musically, it starts very slowly and builds to a big finish - a recurring style for us. I love the overlapping vocals at the end, but I’ve no idea where the "I am the fire" line came from. Just came out with it one day and it seemed to fit perfectly.
Line in the Sand
— A lot of our songs have simple parts which just loop over and over, but with things added every time. This is a perfect example of this. Essentially we run through the same chords a handful of times, but each time round the thing builds until we’ve got half a dozen guitars, the same number of keyboard lines and about ten boy-and-girl vocal harmonies. The song is kind of about how, if you’re sure about something in your life, you should make a stand for your point of view, never mind what your friends or family think. Three years ago I moved to the seaside - the beach is at the bottom of our street. I grew up by the sea, but spent years in the city, and my return to the coast has been a revelation. I feel so much more alive. Clearly, being on the coast also infuses into our lyrics, which are strewn with references to sand, beaches, tides, the sea etc. No bad thing, I don’t think.
Shock of the New
— This song only started to come alive when we decided to record the vocals through a guitar overdrive pedal, whenit started to get some attitude. This kind of started out as our attempt at writing a Wilco tune - that kind of swaggering country thing. It ended up nothing like Wilco, which is probably just as well, as we could never compete. Lyrically, I guess it’s dealing with the idea of keeping on moving and never resting on your laurels. I have a fear or nostalgia and the past, in fact I wrote a novel about it (called Tombstoning and published by Penguin - plug, plug). I just think you should always be looking forward in life, thinking about what to do next, not what you’ve already done. There’s a ridiculous guitar solo at the end, fuelled by whisky.
Start of Winter
— This is the oldest song on the album, in fact it was originally written and demoed around the time of our first album, Hope in Little Things. This is another song which doesn’t have a verse-chorus structure, rather it just loops round and round a set of chords, getting bigger each time. Belgian art rockers Deus do that kind of thing a lot, and we’re big fans of theirs. The lyrics are simple and minimal - we didn’t want to clutter up the building momentum with loads of vocals. It’s about how everyone should have a home to go to, and a warm hearth to sit beside in this cold world. When the final guitar line comes in towards the end, I still get goosebumps, which is a good sign, isn’t it ?
— Viv Strachan is the secret weapon of Northern Alliance. We keep trying to get her to sing more lead vocals, but she prefers to hang around in the background doing harmonies and backing singing. Here she takes the lead, and it sounds fantastic. Some people just don’t realise how talented they are. The song is a combination of simple picky guitar parts, with a wobbly fairground keyboard part at the end which seems to work. It’s a sweet sounding song, which is apt, because it’s about being married. Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote a poem called Scaffolding which was read at my wedding. The sentiment of this song is hopefully the same - that no matter what the world throws at us, we’ll be OK. We’ve built the scaffolding around our relationship and we can stand anything because we’re structurally sound.
— This wasn’t originally on the album, but another song we recorded just wasn’t working, and this seemed to fit in with the mood of the album much better. This is actually the original demo version, recorded in a drunken stupor no doubt, and the drum machine is going through a heavy metal pedal and a distorted guitar amp, I think. Neither me nor Craig can remember writing this song, which is a bit unsettling. We re-recorded the vocals and remixed it, but it’s essentially the same song as the demo. Lyrically, this is a very personal song - my cousin committed suicide a few years ago by hanging himself from a bridge in Calgary, where he lived. He was about the same age as me, and it happened about the time I got married. It affected me deeply. There was a fair amount of mystery surrounding his death, and some secrets came out afterwards which I won’t go into. Anyway, this was an attempt to address my reaction to those events, albeit in a small way.
Our Lives are Ruled By Tides
— This is another fairly relaxed and quiet tune, which ends the gentle bit in the middle of the record. We tried to get Viv to sing the lead vocal, but she wasn’t having it, so we had to make do with her singing some of the chorus herself. This is another song which refers heavily to the sea. I’ve never really understood the tides of the sea, but that doesn’t stop sitting on the beach being a moving experience. I had recently moved to the seaside, and had a child with my wife, and everything was changing in my life, and that’s really what this song is about. You shouldn’t be afraid of change, it can lead to the best things happening to you. This is the hardest song to play live, all picky guitars and everything, but we struggle on manfully with it anyway, cos it’s a cracker.
Tomb of the Eagles
— The Tomb of the Eagles is a 5000-year-old Neolithic site on the Scottish island of Orkney. Orkney is an amazing place, full of history, and it really makes you think about the timeline of humanity, and how we’re all interconnected with the past as much as the future. I visited there a couple of years ago with my wife, and we’d just found out she was pregnant for the first time. I was kind of obsessed with the idea of starting our own family while also being surrounded by all these hundreds of generations of people who had done the same thing thousands of years ago. Total mindfuck. The main riff of this song was intended as a bridge part in another song, but it was so strong it deserved its own space. Both the chords and the words came very quickly. On our recent tour, this became a pretty anthemic set closer - thrashing out the chords and singing for all we were worth. These are also my favourite lyrics on the album.
The Years the Locusts Ate
— Another abstract love song. At least half the songs on the record are about my wife and our son, which sounds sappy, and maybe it is, but a family takes over your life, like it or not. I suddenly realised one day that my twenties (I’m in my mid-thirties now) were a waste of time, apart from meeting my wife. I’m now making music I love, writing novels, working as a music journalist, have a wife and family, and live down the road from the beach. Why didn’t I do all this ten years ago ? The title is a biblical phrase I first came across reading George Mackay Brown’s autobiography. He was a brilliant Orkney fiction writer and poet, and he referred to his twenties as "the years the locusts ate", which really resonated with me. Musically this is a simple country song, the guitar part came from thin air in about a minute. It sounds a bit like Sparklehorse at the end, which is fine by us cos Mark Linkous is something of a genius.
Band of Hope
— I was wandering round a museum in Dundee, where my parents live, and read that the local temperance society (i.e. they didn’t drink alcohol) in the 1820s and 1830s was called the Band of Hope. Boozing was so bad in Scotland then (still is) that abstinence societies were all the rage. We all love alcohol too much to agree with abstinence, but I loved the phrase anyway. It fits in with Northern Alliance’s attitude, and our first record’s title, Hope in Little Things. Musically it sounds simple, but there are weird things going on - odd lengths of bars, strange timings, funny intermediate chords, overlapping out-of-sync keyboards - none of which was planned. We were, ironically, a bit drunk when we wrote and recorded it first time round. It has charm, though, and I think it makes a perfect little optimistic closing song, it couldn’t go anywhere else in the album.