Sweet Billy Pilgrim: Motorcade Amnesiacs

Another art-rock masterpiece from the connoisseurs’ cult.

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All the critical acclaim in the world doesn’t pay thebills. Sweet Billy Pilgrim were Mercury-nominated for 2009’s Twice Born Men, and the knock-on boost that gave to 2012’s Crown And Treaty saw them able to record in places other than their garden shed.

Yet “fame” didn’t RSVP, and main man Tim Elsenburg considered calling time on the outfit. Rave reviews were merited and appropriate, but weren’t translating into solvency. Then he realised he wanted to carry on the good fight against cynicism (personal and collective) regardless, for its own sake. Art versus commerce. Heart versus complacency. Motorcade Amnesiacs – their first for Kscope – reasserts that, once heard, this band cannot be forgotten.

It’s not like they’re inaccessible, either. SBP blend melody, mood and maverick tendencies as effectively as Elbow or Radiohead. They’re a little more studied than that, sure, but have so much ability – and such a fine sense of how to channel it – that they never over-egg the pudding. This album reveals welcoming new depths the more times you listen. It’s exquisitely arranged and produced. If God is in the details, it’s a deity summit meeting. And if at first you admire it from a distance, you soon find your emotions loving it close up. Its pensiveness and its passions are perfectly in harmony.

If this isn’t a tipping point for the band, there’s no justice.

So varied and inventive is the sound that it’d be quicker to list the genres it doesn’t assimilate and reboot than those it does. Lush vocals, literate lyrics, guitar guile, agile rhythms, buoyant horns and strings dress the sorrowful gravitas and strutting grooves. If the assassination of JFK (referenced in the title) marked the moment society lost some of its hope, this music wants to work its way back to a karmic Camelot.

For all the musical excellence and wry wordplay, the honest beauty of the twin voices and their filigreed interplay can’t be overpraised. Elsenburg’s soars with stentorian grandeur, then flames into falsetto. Jana Carpenter’s tugs the heartstrings like her near namesake. On Tyrekickers she’s as affecting as Chrissie Hynde or A Girl Called Eddy. The kraut-disco swing of Just Above Midtown skips as lightly as mid-period Talk Talk or Japan (or, more topically perhaps, Dutch Uncles or Wild Beasts). There are flickers of Prefab Sprout in the careful fusion of craft and confessional throughout. Slingshot Grin glides from dirty riffing to gorgeous strings, while Make It So boldly goes into an echo chamber of swirling pomp-pop.

And so, another sublime album; another gushing review. If this isn’t some kind of tipping point for Sweet Billy Pilgrim, there’s no justice.

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.