29 May 2020

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Album Review: Various Artists - Mansfield

18 Feb 2020 // A review by Peter-James Dries

As an English major, it is my duty to know Mansfield. She sits on my shelf, somewhere between Lawrence and Woolf. As a musician, the Charlotte Yates curated Mansfield project fits right in the middle of my personal Venn diagram.

Yet, looking at my bookshelf now, and my many dusted tomes, I lament that before listening thrice to the fruit of this project I had never once read a word of Katherine’s many works of poetry, prose, or play. The book on my shelf was a rite of passage. I didn’t really know her at all.

Knowing Mansfield is infused in the essence of the Kiwi existence. Mostly by way of enforced enactments of her prose in sweaty rooms under the fluorescent lights of mid-afternoon School Cert English instruction.

Alas, not for me. I’m from that strange period of schooling where New Zealand literature was shunned for being inferior to the tried and true Of Mice and Men or To Kill a Mockingbird, and New Zealand Music Month was something to be tolerated and embarrassed by, not advocated for.

I’d never heard word of her free-spirited bohemian life, her fluid sexuality, her early demise. Surely a truly idealised creature for our current young, if perhaps they hadn’t suffered once too many at the hands of a caged English teacher through the pages of Bliss.

A friend wrote of the Mansfield House here in Wellington once. Boats Against the Current. She used the contrast between the highway and the garden of Katherine’s birthplace, the display of her private diary in such a public place in a way that brought upon me such a feeling of loss.

I shuffled into that garden once, much later. Unintentionally, and not of my own volition. (There was a fire drill at the specific Ministry housing my meeting).

I saw the highway through the trees. But I didn’t see the loss. I saw modernisation. Necessity. The cohabitation of the old and new. In retrospect, the perfect place to sit in the shadow pool of a tree, listening to the poetry that began its life here a century ago now coupled with modern New Zealand musical talent.

It is a beautiful and bizarre thing, this album, with tracks ranging from weird to wonderful. Folksy ballads, and electric elegy, with the acoustic highlighting the emotion in the context of the words, and the digital showing the meter, foot, and beat the words sit upon. Reading along is one thing but feeling along is a whole new experience.

There are bits missed without repeat listens, like the poetry I suppose. The hidden bird songs in vocal takes, the swelling strings beneath the keys, the evidence of life beneath the immortality of the recorded track as a finger presses stop on the tape.

You’ve no doubt heard the renderings of indie darlings French for Rabbits and Lawrence Arabia by now, but I urge you the shake your single-hopping Spotify habits and take this album as a whole. Start with my personal favourite track by Anna Coddington, and don’t stop. You’ll get your lapin(e)s soon enough, just past Julia Deans.

To rejuvenate Mansfield’s poetry with music is an idea so perfect, a pairing so ideal, that it’s surprising such a project hasn’t been completed before. The artists featured showcase their many talents whilst showcasing the talents of our frequently known, oft-overlooked, New Zealand icon. 5 of 5 stars.

Rating: ( 5 / 5 )

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