Recorded 1989-1991, remixed and released 1999
As the recording information makes clear, this album exists in two places at once, chronologically. The original recordings of all these songs were done in in the late 80s and early 90s, and released on cassette tapes that are no longer readily available. Then, almost ten years later, Wilson and Bowness dusted off all those old songs, remixed and rerecorded them, and released them in their current forms. Nevertheless, enough of the material on this record dates back to the early 90s that I’m comfortable covering it now.
Ambient music is a deceptively tricky beast. Done right it can be contemplative, expansive, even spiritual; something that’s able to crystallize broad swathes of emotion and experience into a few notes, washes, and textures. Done wrong it can be a dull and lifeless chore to sit through, made even worse by this feeling that we should be feeling something in this moment but aren’t. There’s not a lot of room between the two. Some of the tracks on Speak do manage to reach those sorts of heights, but as the album goes on, most of them collapse into a vaguely pink taffy mush.
For instance, the title track, first song off the album. The violin, the singing, and the bass (especially the bass), all lovely. Or Pink Moon, the Nick Drake cover, which switches out the acoustic guitar for something more meditative, and chops up and reverses the original’s piano bits and sends them gently floating down to earth, like snow. It’s also a minute longer, allowing the ambient swells to take center stage and nudge the song forward. Thing is, those are the only two songs I’d unambiguously recommend off this album.
Songs like Iris Murdoch Cut Me Down, though, don’t work quite as well. In that one, for instance, the instrumentation doesn’t really go anywhere, and the vocals sound like they came from a completely different song. Curtain Dream seems half-finished (ironic, considering that was one of the ones completely re-recorded in ‘99). The instrumentation in River Song is identical to the original, with the same ominously pastoral atmosphere, but the No-Man vocals don’t have the same punches and harmonies that Donovan’s do. The Ballet Beast is just kind of…there. Death and Dodgson’s Dreamchild doesn’t cohere at all.
I get what No-Man are going for here. This is supposed to be a record that documents small, quiet moments both positive and negative. And many of the songs do have moments that capture that sort of feeling. For instance: the harmonica in Heaven’s Break; the violin in French Free Terror Suspect, and Night Sky Sweet Earth (god bless Ben Coleman); and the piano in Riverrun and Life With Picasso. But those are all moments. Otherwise, much of Speak seems oddly half-finished, like they were a collection of sketches more than actual songs (which would have been fine if that’s how it was advertised), and pale especially in comparison to the more developed stuff they’d release later on.