Genealogy is a strange thing. The process of unearthing fundamental things about ourselves, human things, through official records and photographs. Glimpses of a past flattened, simplified, made official or bureaucratic. Selected truths, half-truths, downright lies. The skeleton of the colonial organism from which we descend. It’s not a complete answer, nowhere near, but if we assemble enough information and spread it over the floor then we might just find ourselves, collage-like, staring back.
Ben Cooper’s latest, albeit fictitious, project is one alternative. After losing two novels to a hard-drive crash, he decided to tell a story through his Radical Face project instead. The Family Tree trilogy was born, an ambitions, complex trilogy of albums telling the story of The Northcotes, a fictitious 19th Century family graced with paranormal abilities (seeing spirits, reanimating dead animals etc.). In accompaniment, as if to show how far his vision will stretch, Cooper has created an interactive map of the songs which goes some way to revealing the interconnectedness of the albums, helping the adventurous listener follow specific characters through time as their genes tumble downwards.
Released in 2011, The Roots opens the trilogy, throwing us straight into the tangle of the Northcote family and opening our eyes to just how complex and detailed the project will be. ‘Family Portrait’ feels like a cornerstone, a song narrated by William Northcote describing how his mother died, his father lost control and his sister, Victoria, became the matriarchal figure of the family. William and his father are the first signs of a Northcote trait, being over-emotional and quick to anger, while Victoria is the primary source of the more fantastical elements – strange abilities and witch-like dispositions. From here, characters appear and vanish, only to reappear later for a song or two, but always feel fully-realised. In an encyclopaedic, door-stop novel, a thousand characters might be more like a thousand caricatures, or 995 caricatures and a handful of substantial people, but Cooper’s evocative sound means each person feels relevant and real, however fleeting their appearance. The result is a wonderful combination of artistic and emotional depth. Not only are there a million details to explore but there are solid reasons to do so, each tiny part of the machine as important and beautiful when its time comes to be examined.
Take ‘Severus and Stone’ as an example. The titular characters are the twin sons of Abigail Northcote, herself the daughter of Victoria, the sister from ‘Family Portrait’. Stone, the narrator of the track, only reappears three or four times, and Severus less than that, but their inclusion doesn’t feel like some deviation from the main story. When the next track, ‘The Moon is Down’, jumps to follow a lifelong but silent admirer of Victoria, the switch is not jarring in the slightest, because Severus and Stone are also Abigail, are also Victoria, are also Ben Cooper himself.
“And when I woke he was gone and I was wrapped in blankets on the lawn the sky was blue and my skin matched the hue and I could hear mother crying in your room.
From here on out I wear this face for both of us”
The Branches continues the tale of the Northcotes in the 19th century, although there is the growing sense that the songs are based on experiences from Cooper’s own life. There are some clear examples – ‘The Mute’ is at least partially inspired by his neuroatypical nephew who does not speak – but pretty much every song has a hint of personal experience behind the story. A fair proportion of the tracks deal with a feeling of alienation, of not-fitting into the environment in which the characters find themselves, something Cooper, who came out to his parents (and who’s response was negative) when he was 14, has surely felt all too keenly.
The segment is a dark one, the hope so familiar to Radical Face’s music not entirely absent but focussed in less than ideal ways. Closer ‘We All Go the Same’ is perhaps the best example, a song which confronts the arbitrary nature of luck and circumstance, managing to find respite only in the fact that we are all human and will meet the same conclusion.
“Well, some of us will be revered, and some forgotten
And some of us will sleep out in the rain
And some of us will die lonely
And others’ in grace and warmth
But in the end we all go the same”
Due to some serious, life-changing occurrences in Cooper’s personal life, The Leaves sees fiction morph into fact. As he described to NPR, he could no longer hide things within made-up stories, the whole process feeling dishonest. The issues being worked through on this album are hard and dark and distressing but, as is his gift, Cooper manages to create something vividly alive. This is not some melodramatic celebration of sadness, not pain fashioned into something smooth and shiny and romantic, but rather a sincere study of the human spirit, the possibility for compassion and community and connection in the face of the most difficult circumstances. As such, The Leaves feels like a pact, a show of solidarity, a defiant record devoted to the power of empathy and grace, a reminder that kindness can and will overcome misery and grief.
“I heard you say that we’d lost, we’d lost, we’d lost, we’d lost our way
But I don’t think we had much to lose that path was never built for us
And I ain’t gonna hang my head for them, for them
And I ain’t gonna let them paint the truth with sin
And I ain’t gonna tell you it’s okay but at the end of the day
You were just something they’d blame”
To view the The Family Tree as a some lesson in conceptual music, an argument for ambition and technical complexities, is to miss the point of the trilogy. Yes, the feat is an impressive one. Yes, Cooper’s commitment and attention to detail are admirable. But the genius, the glory of the trilogy is not the overarching narrative but rather the songs themselves, the small moments of heartbreak, hatred and hope. The opening of this piece mentioned how unreliable information from the past can be amassed into some sort of truth. The Family Tree takes this idea a step further. Here, reality has sprouted from fictions, pure truth germinating from the stories Cooper has watered over the years, thus creating a tree about more than the milestones of life, a genealogical chart consisting not of births and marriages and deaths but rather the iridescent texture of life, a hundred lonely shadows, a thousand glittering joys. Remember, without the subterranean dark of the roots, the lignified toughness of the branches, the leaves could not exist.
You can buy the The Family Tree collection now in a variety of formats from the Radical Face website.
Photo by Ben Cooper