James Joyce revolutionized writing and died half-blind in poverty.
Now he's a rock star. Click Play Audio to hear more
Like the work of the man that precedes it, Fire Records' double album Chamber Music is epic. 36 tracks several years in the making, the collection takes Joyce's bold, sweeping lyrics in dramatic, engaging directions. Of the original book, WB Yeats was moved to remark 'I hear an army charging upon the land.' It's a sentiment that this record embraces.
In its depth, Joyce's body of work is one of the most highly-charged literary middle fingers the world has ever known, matched only by, say, Hunter Thompson in its conviction, romance, individualism and invention.
Fire Records declare themselves 'a label for those who defy labelling'. Their roster leans towards folk or electronic/rock, and the most engaging interpretations on the record come from those clearest-cut in their genre. The most intriguing ones, however, come from those who dare to venture into the murky, ill-defined territories between.
One of the better-established male performers, Ed Harcourt favours piano chords tugged along by a nodding electronic backbeat, while scratchy, futzed vocals bring Joyce's lyrics to life. Tackling verse 'VII', HTRK whisper moodily over an accellerated pulse.
Jessica Bailiff features, at her pagan/elvin best, the flutes that finish off 'IV' suggesting a cross-legged goat-god tootling ethereally amidst the falling leaves.
Like The Wicker Man set in the Celtic twilight, this is the perfect introduction to Bailiff's voice and approach, her 2006 album Feels Like Home a recommended follow-up.
Joyce's impact on literature and thought was massive in his own day, and since his death in 1946 his writing has inspired people working in all artforms.
In film, John Huston's adapation of Dubliners' final story 'The Dead' was nominated for two Academy Awards. That film was followed by 2004's Bloom, which transferred Ulysses to the big screen. In the world of Northern Irish punk rock, Therapy?'s 'Potato Junkie' still unites mosh pits with chants of 'James Joyce is fucking my sister'.
Fire Records aren't the first to produce a musical adaptation of Chamber Music, this version preceded by others from hands as diverse as Syd Barret, Luciano Berio and Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth. Shelley's bandmate Lee Renaldo appears here, as do indie stalwarts Mercury Rev, Peter Buck of REM, and troubador Willy Mason.
The conventional wisdom says that Joyce's work is difficult, with people claiming it to be 'too hard'. Of the body of critical literature produced in his wake, one statement stands tall: if in doubt, read aloud. Similarly, tracks from Chamber Music benefit from being played at full volume.
The bucolic pluck of Gravenhust on 'XXXII' needs to be blasted out at full pelt, to let the warmth fill the room. Similarly mid-tempo, Flying Saucer Attack's 'XXIV' works best amped up to 11, when its yearning blocks out the whittering of your own internal monologue.
Some interpretations are more lyrical than others. Mike Watt's voice reproduces the verse clearly, over a backing of jazzy alt-rock. Owen Tromans, sounding a little like Michael Stipe, sings openly over steely acoustic guitar arpeggios.
With 'XII', Text of Light depart completely, opening with a school assembly recitation before unsettling musical passages seep in like horror-movie mist. Not one to be listened to on late, lonely walks home.
Just as Joyce is known for his formal invention, the least conventional tracks on Chamber Music command attention.
Airport Studies fuse the French and English verses of 'XI' with mulchy electro, and with 'XVII' David Hurn and Abigail Hopkins turn the words into a love song from a future past, like a message in a space-capsule recovered from the cosmos.
The original poem is rich and digestible in its entirety, and individual verses are eminently explorable. Plucked at random, 'XXI':
He who hath glory lost, nor hath
Found any soul to fellow his,
Among his foes in scorn and wrath
Holding to ancient nobleness,
That high unconsortable one -
His love is his companion.
On Chamber Music, this is taken up by a group named Great Depression. It's a revealing name and cautionary one for the prevailing mood of the record.
If you have little appetite for indie melodrama and minor chords, leave this record be. If the mopey introspection of Nick Drake or smokey existensialism of Serge Gainsboug make you smile on the inside, buy the CD and the double-gatefold vinyl to boot.
For the curious, Chamber Music offers high-end literary electronica, silky folk and moody spoken word, with a guaranteed pedigree.
A key track comes from Mountain Men Anonymous, their gorgeous rendition of 'XXIX' ('Dear heart, why will you use me so?') bringing to mind Radiohead, or Bjork, or Moby with a straight-up dirty electro beat. Molly Bloom would approve.
This is the concise, cinematic moment of revelation - ascendant, but especially odd since the fluttering vocals sound like they're sung by an angel with helium breath.
While not epiphanic, the album is inspired. Arriving more than a hundred years after the poem's first publication, Chamber Music is a record that shall surely be remembered a hundred years hence.
Chamber Music - James Joyce (1907). 1-36. (various artists) is available now on Fire Records.