Most bands, after 34 albums, probably wouldn’t have many new tricks up their sleeves. But the Tiger Lillies manage to keep breaking new ground. Their 35th album, A Dream Turns Sour, is their first album based on real-life events, and their first for which Martyn Jacques did not write his own lyrics. Instead, all 15 of A Dream Turns Sour‘s songs are musical adaptations of World War I poetry, all written by British, American and Canadian poets who died on the battlefield. As such, it’s one of the darkest things the Tiger Lillies have ever recorded—which, given Jacques’ long fascination with death and cruelty, is saying something.
The album picks a logical starting point with Scottish infantry Captain Charles Hamilton Sorley’s poem titled simply “Death,” which mordantly addresses the grim reaper directly: “Saints have adored the lofty soul of you/Poets have whitened at your high renown.” Jacques and his bandmates—bassist Adrian Stout, drummer Mike Pickering and guest bouzouki/banjo player Paul-Ronnie Angel—deliver Sorley’s dark paean in typical Tiger Lillies fashion, with lots of sprightly accordion and upright bass and Jacques’ trademark falsetto, suggesting that despite its grim subject matter, A Dream Turns Sour might be another entry in the Lillies’ long catalog of albums that give the bleakest source material a humorous twist.
But “Death,” it turns out, is a bit of a red herring. Most of A Dream Turns Sour hews closer to the hushed, mournful tones of its treatment of a second Sorley poem, “The Mouthless Dead.” Here, Jacques drops his falsetto to intone Sorley’s fatalistic verses over solemn piano and bowed bass: “Such, such is Death: no triumph: no defeat/Only an empty pail, a slate rubbed clean.” It’s powerful stuff, and signals that most of A Dream Turns Sour will adopt a tone more in keeping with All Quiet on the Western Front than Blackadder Goes Forth.
The bulk of A Dream Turns Sour is devoted to less famous poets of the Great War; since Jacques decided to limit his source material to writers who did not survive the trenches, there’s no room here for Siegfried Sassoon or Robert Graves. He also steers clear of more sentimental poets like Rupert Brooke, whose “The Soldier” was one of the most popular war poems of its time thanks to lofty and oft-quoted lines like, “If I should die, think only this of me/That there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England.” The closest A Dream Turns Sour comes to such romanticized notions of war and death is Canadian poet John McRae’s famous “Flanders Field”—though even over an accordion-led waltz that conjures images of cozy French wine bars, Jacques’ high-pitched rasp finds a hint of menace in the poem’s familiar verses, which are spoken by the dead: “If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep.”
Among the many near-forgotten gems of World War I poetry unearthed elsewhere on A Dream Turns Sour: Noel Hodgson’s “Before Action,” a hollow prayer for an honorable death (“Help me to die, O Lord”), here renamed “Help Me” and recast as a stately hymn for acoustic guitar and muted yet martial drums; Leslie Coulson’s florid but heartbreaking “One Little Hour,” delivered by Jacques with utmost restraint, over just a simple piano figure; Arthur Graeme West’s shockingly nihilistic “God, How I Hate You,” which gives Jacques a rare opportunity to ham it up a bit, ranting, “I hate you! And you! And especially you!” over the bitter wheeze of his accordion; and Isaac Rosenberg’s stunningly bleak, gruesome “Dead Man’s Dump,” which Jacques intones simply, accompanied by the ghostly tones of Stout’s musical saw: “The wheels lurched over the sprawled dead/But pained them not, though their bones crunched.”
For the most part, Jacques and his bandmates approach their source material with a degree of reverence unusual for them. The only time they really seem to be winking a bit is on their sprightly rendition of American poet Alan Seeger’s “Rendezvous With Death,” an admittedly overwrought bit of Yankee death-wish bravado that was apparently a favorite of John F. Kennedy’s. It’s the one time on the album that Jacques shuffles the order of the original verses and even inserts a few of his own, throwing in an added bit of doggerel (“So come on, Death, and take my hand/And lead me to your darkened land/And close my eyes and steal my breath”) that leads him to a fit of hammy hyperventilating. Depending on your point of view, it’s either a much-needed moment of levity, or the album’s only real false note.
A Dream Turns Sour saves its greatest source for last: the justly revered English poet, Wilfred Owen, whose verses adorn the album’s final four tracks. It’s thrilling to hear the Tiger Lillies breathe new life into the familiar yet still devastating verses of Owen’s most famous work, “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” which they unexpectedly turn into a pretty piano meditation. But it’s even more exciting to hear them revive lesser-known masterpieces like “Mud” (which begins with the arresting lines, “I, too, saw God through mud/The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled”) and “Three Parts,” movingly told from the viewpoint of a crippled veteran in a hospital bed (“I’m blind, and three parts shell…Both arms have mutinied against me—brutes”). Though there are many moments of fine poetry throughout A Dream Turns Sour, the arrival of Owen’s verses pretty much blows away everything that’s come before it.
Taken altogether, A Dream Turns Sour may not be the Tiger Lillies’ most entertaining album. Its subject matter is too relentlessly grim; its arrangements, for the most part, too restrained. But if you trust Martyn Jacques and his bandmates to take you on a journey into one of the darkest chapters of history, A Dream Turns Sour is a moving and occasionally shocking portrayal of the effects war has on men’s bodies and souls. It’s certainly a much better introduction to World War I poetry than some dry literature class. And on the hundredth anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand (literally—the album was released on June 28th, one hundred years to the day after the assassination), it’s a grim reminder of just how brutal and horrific those wars in our history books really were.
A Dream Turns Sour is available now from the Tiger Lillies’ online store.