Passport 1978 / Esoteric 2016
Piecing a jigsaw together, master of English melancholy uncovers his playful self.
Just like its title suggested, 1977’s “The Geese And The Ghost” was both soaring and spectral in terms of success, but more than anything Anthony Phillips‘ debut showed his academically elevated ability to balance and bounce between orchestral scope and pop point. And that’s what the record label wanted from Ant for his first albums’s follow-up: songs. Yet “the simpler the better” has never been a formula for this artist, so he delivered the goods in his own special way, the change of context signified by the LP cover.
The furry creature didn’t strictly mean the playfulness of the new set, though; rather, the piece titled “Squirrel” briefly emerged as a single – having been cut out of what could turn out as a loosely concept collection of tunes linked with instrumental passages. Unfortunately, the deluxe edition of the quiet classic doesn’t restore the planned order – some material banished to the "Private Parts & Pieces" fold – but, except for tying all the loose ends the way previous reissue did, it helps the album obtain brighter colors by remixing it in stereo and surround, while retaining the original sound of the LP and keeping alternative versions, all on 3 CDs and a DVD. Still, the vibrancy of the record is rooted in its melodic tightness, running from the drone-driving buzz of “We’re All As We Lie” to the gentle sway behind “Now What (Are They Doing To My Little Friends)” where one can see a glimpse of Tarka, as choruses come full of hooks and contrast elegiac verses. And if there’s no obvious links, save for a bonus snippet, the connections which make the result cohesive are present – hidden in plain view, like the wisdom theme hitching the former number to the mid-paced pulse of the baroque-tinctured title track or Mel Collins’ reeds that pitch melancholy here and in “Birdsong” whose delicate uplift, devised back in 1970 and now abetted by the burst of Michael Giles’ drums and John G. Perry’s bass, feels so exquisite in the 12-string strum.
More so, just before electric trills entwine into the rich fabric of the tune, Phillips’ vocals reveal their full might, and the surrealistic flow snaps into a prog rock riverbed. It’s no less interesting to trace the development of pieces like the atmospheric “Pulling Faces” or “Moonshooter” from a sparse demo to a scintillating performance with, on the latter, a prominent piano, albeit the extent of Ant’s mastery of this instrument, the only one on “Squirrel” – a welcome addition here – would be sensed felt on an alternative mix of “Regrets” that gives ivories a pride of place on this romantic ballad – eventually taken to wuthering heights with an orchestral swell. At the same time, “Greenhouse” marries symphonic intent to sincere simplicity of a sunny day ditty, and “Paperchase” blends inspired charge with Ant’s trademark transparent textures, built by the careful stacking of guitar layers, as sketched on the extra material part of the box set.
What’s impressive is that most of the demos firmly stand on their own and could have done nicely without lyrics or even overdubs – “We’re All As We Lie” shaping up as a sort of ambient tango – which completely justifies Ant’s decision to let unreleased bits into the open as a whole series, and the mesmeric “Magic Garden” landed there before reappearing on reissues with a focus on keyboard. But then, it’s easy to be wise after the event, and in the absence of hushed grandiosity, this record has preserved its alluring design that, as Phillips suggested, was known to Heaven.