There’s something off-putting about pop music with too many high literary ambitions. Throwing in pretentious quotes or name-checking German authors might be fine for academic essays and late-night discussions, but distilling your thoughts into a four-minute song usually requires a simpler approach for heartfelt communication.
So it’s initially concerning when one reads that ‘In The Gardens Of The North’ was inspired by Kafka and WG Sebald. Luckily, the latest record from one-man musical project Sleeping States, a.k.a. Markland Starkie, eschews pretensions in favour of warm and beguiling songs about the passing of time and the deaths of those who mean something to us.
Several years releasing EPs and singles while studying sound art at university gave Starkie the chance to perfect his style, which adds experimental noises to gentle acoustic guitar, all held together by his rich and dreamy vocals. Since releasing his debut, ‘There The Open Spaces’, in 2007, he’s toured the US and UK with such indie luminaries as Blonde Redhead and M. Ward, before returning to his adopted hometown of Bristol to work on his second album.
The city’s DIY culture is definitely in line with Starkie’s approach to making music. If at times he sounds a little like a warmer, less-heartbroken version of Bon Iver, it might be because ‘In The Gardens Of The North’ was partially recorded in a cottage in the woods outside Bristol (as opposed to a log cabin in frozen Wisconsin).
Starkie’s voice is at the centre of each song, occasionally referencing Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright but more often carving a sound of its own. The rest of the music revolves around him, changing from delicate folk to twee but lo-fi indie pop. ‘Gardens of the South’ even offers smooth a 1950s R&B ballad sung with a soft croon that conjures images of teenagers dancing slowly in their socks in a darkened high school gym.
Sometimes you can’t help wish for a bit more excitement from a record that tries to create such an eclectic palette of sounds but always ends up returning to its starting acoustic guitar. ‘In The Gardens Of The North’ is a record for a rainy day rather than a summer’s evening, but its charm is undeniable.
Words: Stephen Harris