I joked a few months ago that 'Unsongs' by Pål Moddi Knutsen was such a weighty project that our review might turn into a thesis, especially given we'd opted on the Pledge Campaign for the pack that had notes, demos and other such stuff on which would probably add to the words we'd want to write (which fortunately for you all, hasn't arrived yet). But actually I will try not to be too expansive, because for the best understanding of 'Unsongs', I'd suggest you go the material which Moddi himself has provided, through his website, videos and interviews - including some on the BBC which has been lovely to see.
So the premise of 'Unsongs', should you not know already is that Moddi has released an album entirely devoted to songs that at some point have been 'banned'. Narrowed down from an initial long list of 400 songs and poems (we're looking forward to Volumes 2-40 of 'Unsongs' over the next 40 years...), Moddi settled on an interesting mix of 12 track that reflects different types of censorship, and clearly it's the stories behind the songs, as well as Moddi's interpretation and arrangement of each of them which makes the album so special. These are all stories which need to be told or retold, irrespective of whether you agree with the stance of the songwriter (maybe Parrot, Goat & Rooster) or the approach that the songwriters took in making their point (maybe Punk Prayer).
The album opens with 'June Fourth 1989: From The Shattered Pieces Of A Stone It Begins', originally written by the Chinese poet and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, who has been unable to collect the Nobel Peace Prize he won 6 years ago, due to his imprisonment for his involvement in 'Charter 08', which called for freedom of expression, human rights and democratic elections. His 'June 4 Eulogies' (the day of the Tiananmen Square massacres) includes the poem 'From the Shattered...', and Moddi has sensitively put music to the words, but always with those words central to the version of the song. Musically 'A Matter of Habit' is amongst my favourites on the album, but again it's the subject matter that is thought provoking and I could quote almost any line lyrically to make the point - maybe watching the video that goes with the film (on the 'Unsongs' website) will explain things far better than I can. But in particular listen out for the beautiful string instrumentation that is layered on in the latter part of the track - it's the intensity of these arrangements that add so much character to the song.
Punk Prayer (almost everyone will know the Pussy Riot story) is really interesting because here Moddi has taken the snippet of melody (it was mostly just noise) from the original, slowed it down and used methodologies he feels were appropriate to Russian composers such as Rachmaninov to recreate the song. The result is far more emphasis on those lyrics, it is a soft contemplative version, which sounds like a traditional prayer - it's very clever, even if I sadly struggle to hear much of the Rachmaninov influence. And whilst there is huge irony in Moddi being denied access to a small Norwegian church close to the Russian border to film the video of the song, it does prove the point of the project, which is that censorship comes in so many different forms, and not always at times and in ways we would expect. But it's actually the next track 'Open Letter' that I find amongst the most fascinating because it tells of the Berber population, scattered across North African countries, and a plight that sadly I knew little about until now. It's a curious song, and the way it opens up into a jaunty folk anthem whilst shamelessly offending almost everyone is fairly extraordinary.
The album continues with a nice version of Kate Bushes 'Army Dreamers' which was banned from the Radio 1 Playlist (I should point out that so was the entire Cardiacs catalogue, albeit for different reasons....). And then after a song written by Victor Jara, the well known Chilean activist and songwriter who was sadly assassinated at age of just 40, we're offered the 'Parrot, Goat & Rooster' (and part of the Narcocorrido genre) which is the track I find least appealing in the context of the rest of the album - even if I do understand the justification for its inclusion.
I remember Moddi telling a shortened version of the Eli Geva story at the Castle Hotel Manchester two years ago, the full story is available on the Bandcamp link at the bottom of the page - read it, it's how this whole project started. But the key line about the importance of 'Unsongs' comes from the original songwriter Richard Burgess who said 'I could have written a song that she would have been allowed to perform but I don't think it would have been as good a song' - if there's one line that I will always remember from this project, that's the line. The song itself is one of my most listened to songs over the last 2 years, and I've loved listening to the original version now too, which was finally released last year by Birgitte Grimstad 30 years after she was unable to perform it in Israel.
But to me the highlight of the album is the beautiful and poignant 'Where's Is My Vietnam', originally written by songwriter Viet Khang, who had simply watched government violence against Vietnamese protestors on the internet and written 2 songs about it. Moddi's version of the song is quite different, starting by stripping back the instruments used in the opening which gives extra power and emotion to his voice and emphasis to the words - 'people are hungry and afraid, whilst hundred miles away, their leaders pig on pork chops and champagne'. These are not the type of words that here we would find particularly controversial, but the author was jailed for 4 years for writing them. The song broadens into the gorgeous chorus tune heard in the original, but accompanied by more sweeping intense strings. I think you're maybe allowed to shed a small tear at this one.
This is a beautifully presented album that, even aside from the political themes, has greatly surpassed my expectations. And having spent hours reading up more on the stories behind the album, I can understand how this must have taken over Moddi's life for the last couple of years. My main pre-release worry was that the subject matter could simply be too melancholy, way off the top of our 'Mirel Wagner Scale of Bleakness', and yes there are clearly sad and tragic stories behind almost all the songs. But actually this is an uplifting album which will inspire rather than deflate.
Of course I was joking when I suggested Moddi should carry on releasing endless volumes of Banned Songs over the next 4 decades - I miss the stories of fisherman on Senja too much to suggest he should do that. But It does leave me wondering about all the stories which never made the final Moddi shortlist, struggles against the powerful which should not be forgotten - maybe there's a book there for someone. And this will undoubtedly change Moddi's songwriting forever, whether his future songs will be as overtly political as those in 'Unsongs' I'm not sure, but I think Moddi now understands better than anyone the power of music, and we'll see that in both his subject matter and the way he expresses his lyrics and music.
I've written way too much. Beautiful songwriting, charming instrumental arrangements and powerful stories and lyrics that will give you goosebumps. Go buy 'Unsongs' and read more about the stories behind them.
Nordic Music Review 9 /10
Moddis website is packed full of interesting text and videos of the stories behind the songs: http://www.unsongs.com/
This BBC World Service interview is really interesting too: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03w6qpj
And there's a fair few website interviews with good interviews, as always the excellent Quietus is amongst the best: http://thequietus.com/articles/20947-pal-moddi-knutsen-interview
Moddi plays St Giles Church, London on the Monday 3rd October. It will be amazing so please go if you can. I should have been there, but sadly family logistics may scupper the planned journey down from up North. If you want my ticket in exchange for a small charitable donation please e-mail us or contact us on Twitter.