If you’ve never read one of our In Conversation pieces, it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like: the Senior Staff take a record or other piece of art from the spectrum of Our Thing, and give it a good chewing over. Less formal and more personal than our reviews, it’s usually a chance to compare notes and really dig in on something we have a lot to say about, while also allowing us a bit more latitude in how we discuss things. For our first In Conversation of 2018, we’re listening to the new record by an artist who should be no stranger to readers of this site, and whose records were practically made for this format…
Hall of Thatch
Alex: In a recent conversation we were having about pre-release single “Blighter” I noted how unusual it is to get a Rome song free of the context of an album. So much of the identity of the band is tied up in explorations of literal events or very specific themes across a collection of songs, that it can be easy to lose track of Jérôme Reuter’s knack for songcraft and arrangement. Upon hearing the rest of Hall of Thatch, I think the reasoning behind putting out “Blighter” as a teaser might be a lot simpler: it’s one of the few moments of relative accessibility on an otherwise pretty harrowing LP. The album might actually be Jérôme’s most distressing album to listen to since the mid-aughts, replete with an anger, sorrow and lyrical self-flagellation that it’s actually a bit unsettling to hear as a fan of the artist.
The album might be closest to Hell Money in terms of how it deals with personal struggle, although I think Hall of Thatch is dealing with those ideas in a bigger, darker and more metaphysical sense. Jérôme said in some of the pre-release material that while it was a record about spiritual fulfillment and transcendence inspired by Buddhism, but it’s actually about the struggle more than the end goals. And in this case the struggle is a violent and occasionally scary one. Were you as taken aback as I was by the record’s tone on your first listen?
Bruce: Yeah, it seemed like he wanted to get out in front of the Hell Money comparisons himself. I guess I can see why folks’d make that connection with regards to the personal and somewhat brutal feel of the record, but I think it was more the musical directness and unity which first stuck out to me rather than its rough nature. There’s the common thread of acoustic guitars up front, but often buttressed by thumping, echoing kicks and at times quite ominous bass and thundering electric guitar (Jesus Christ, “Martyr” gives Filth-era Swans a run for its money). Acoustic guitar has always been a key part of Rome’s sound, but it’s rarely sounded so muscled, so swaggering. An odd occurrence given the record’s themes, which I’m sure we’ll get back to in a bit.
It’s not just the music which is tied closely together; Jérôme’s vocals are often possessed not just by the impassive observance of history his baritone have connoted at a whim in the past, but by a sense of stoic control over and focus on the voice as an instrument. Witness the deep and echoing depths it reaches on “Hunter”, or “Clemency”, where he seems to be imitating the monotone mantras he would’ve encountered (and sometimes samples) on his trip through Vietnam. There are exceptions – the raging bark of the aforementioned “Martyr” where he’s channeling Cave more than we’ve ever heard before, or “Keeper” where he moves from a raspy croon to desperate shrieking – but the strident and indefatigable tone of the vocals seems like a conscious move to match the record’s themes. As a way of getting the ball rolling with those, what did you make of the conceit of naming all the tracks after positions or professions (ie, all using an “er” suffix, or a “yr” one in “Martyr”‘s case), save for the closing “Clemency”, which seems to be a deliberate combo breaker?
Alex: Good question, and to be honest I’m not sure if I have a convincing answer. I think it may have something to do with all of these songs being about personal embodiment of some kind, although there are others that seem to be pretty literal. Like the lyrics to “Prayer” seem to actually be about the act of prayer, and is presented as an examination of what prayer actually means from a personal perspective, and what doubts might creep into the mind of the theoretical person praying. There’s also “Hunter”, which is pretty clearly about another person entirely, although concerned with their effect on the song’s narrator. There’s a lot going on in terms of each song’s narrative, and I think it’s safer not to assume that every song is supposed to be from Jérôme’s point of view, even if it does reflect his thoughts and feelings if that makes sense.
Can we talk for a bit about how the album approaches the concept of mercy? “Hawker” starts by being very specifically about ‘holy men’ but becomes about the protagonist’s struggles with the ideas they espouse in a really personal way, with a plea for mercy. And the last song on the album is “Clemency”, which is basically just another word for the same idea, a formal forgiveness of sorts. But that song suggests that it’s a thing you need to be capable of accepting, which ties back into what I think is a pretty distinct streak of self-punishment that runs through the record, you hear it in the shame and guilt on “Keeper” and on “Slaver” respectively, this yearning for a personal absolution that might not actually be possible. The former song especially sounds like a man trying to exorcise doubt and sorrow, concluding with an uncertainty that is honestly kind of distressing as Jérôme sounds like he’s in tears. Did you pick up on that thread? It’s tied into a lot of other ideas like love and desire and sorrow, but I think it’s kind of the key to the whole album.
Bruce: Amongst other major differences, I’d say that the personal (rather than institutional) preparation or the attunement of the self in order to be in a position to receive grace, enlightenment, or inner peace is something that’s often thrown out with the bathwater in post-Enlightenment western understandings of religion (both by its adherents and critics), but is something that is often picked up on in Buddhism…or at least as much of it as I’ve been able to glean, again, often through a post-Enlightenment filter. Herman Hesse is a name which kept coming to mind as I listened to Hall Of Thatch. Forgiveness and absolution, especially of the self, take work, and they’re not at all guaranteed.
Anyway, I think it’s impressive, though not at all surprising, that Reuter was able to pivot to this theme so smoothly after The Hyperion Machine. Yes, as we already alluded to he engaged in a somewhat similar personal unburdoning on Hell Money, but whereas that felt like the venting of a very personal spleen (at times to an obfuscating degree), Hall Of Thatch sounds like a more rigorous and studied self-inventory. More Cormac McCarthy than Céline, if that tracks. I sometimes feel silly dancing around ideas like “legacy” when writing about someone whose first records I can handily recall picking up upon release, but the Rome discography already feels so weighty and significant that Jérôme digging into these darker recesses carries some gravitas it wouldn’t have if he’d been a confessional singer-songwriter right out of the gate. The remembrances of “Hawker” – “Oh, I was young and what was meant to bring me closer to death, as I recall / Made just a little short of breath, that’s all” – could be trite and twee in an indie-pop debut, but feel earned at this stage in the game.
Alex: Yeah, I feel the same. One of the things I was thinking hard about when listening to the album the second or third time through was that this is one the least romantic Rome albums released, deliberately so in my estimation. As an artist who is used to dealing with actual historical events in his work, I think the tone of Jérôme’s work is very respectful and filled with an honest solemnity. He’s not looking to invoke the conflicts of the past in a cheap way ever, and while I don’t think it limits him as a musician, it’s certainly not “normal” to hear him cut loose like he does on Hall of Thatch. Like I don’t think you get these arrangements of instruments or performances on Rome album about the Spanish Civil War or whatever. If I wanted to compare its timbre and tone to a record from the catalogue it would probably be Nera, but this LP is still such a far cry from it terms of being open and nakedly personal.
Stepping away from that to actually examine the way these songs are put together, man is this album fraught in places. Listen to the speedy strumming set against samples of wildlife at the outset of “Hunter”, when that song breaks into the open chords on the chorus it’s a relief to get some space, even as Jérôme sings in his absolute deepest voice. Or how the organ-inflected ending of “Hawker” flows seemlessly into “Prayer”, giving you absolutely no room to recover from an emotional peak before plunging you into a less strident but no less powerful self-examination. Jérôme is really good at matching his instrumental craft to his themes, so I guess it’s appropriate that this one would be really charged and uneasy. It’s a record that asks a lot, and doesn’t give you much in the way of catharsis, with final song “Clemency” ending on a mood of uncertainty. Rome has never been about easy answers, but even for a project defined by the struggle to find meaning and understanding this one has a lot of conflict at its heart.
Bruce: Definitely. The military conflicts and loves lost and found which often make up Rome’s work make room for a certain ebb and flow in terms of ballads to stormers and back again, but there’s a rigid tension which runs through Hall of Thatch musically and lyrically, and as you say, the rigorous dedication to the theme is probably the cause. While it’s definitely amongst his stronger efforts, this one really feels like a record for die-hard Rome fans who are up for the intensity of hearing Reuter go as full-bore as he can for the duration of an LP. That might not make for a showcase of the full range of his talents for those joining the party late, but it’s as bracing as a quick punch to the nose (or a swift dose of satori if we’re keeping with the theme). Reuter’s saving the heaviest body blows for himself, however, and as brutal as that might be at times, it makes for enthralling listening.