There must be something in the water in Scotland. Maybe it is the heritage of poets and heroes or the incredible panorama. Maybe it comes from centuries of having to defend your borders against invaders that makes you introspective and reflective. Whatever it is only a band from Scotland could produce this album, I Worked On The Ships, with any sense of genuine integrity. I had heard Aidan Moffat and Arab Strap, Malcolm Middleton and Mogwai before and I hung on every word. Ballboy do exactly that and from the moment I pressed play on this album I disappeared off into some deeply rewarding place in my mind that normally only exists at night.
I Worked on the Ships is a collection of songs that are akin to walking along a street peering down through dimly lit windows of basement flats, beyond the curtains and into other people’s lives. This is thought provoking poetry to music. It has a vivid film like quality of powerful imagery. Never depressing, it takes you on a journey beyond otherwise closed doors.
This is in fact Edinburgh based Ballboy’s fifth studio album since forming in 2002. They were one of the late John Peel’s favourite ‘finds’ and he asked them to sessions on his radio show no less than five times. The band is Gordon McIntyre (vocals and guitars), Nick Reynolds (bass), Gary Morgan (drums), and Alexa Morrison (keyboards. melodica and vocals). Pete Harvey provided the cello within the album. Gordon McIntyre also took care of production and mixing following the recording which took place in a small cottage near Galashiels in the Scottish Borders.
I Worked On The Ships opens with birdsong and the beautiful “The Guide to Shortwave Radio”. “Song for Kylie” continues with some visually moving images so well written that you feel as though you know this person and the situation as soon as the song starts. The image of the singer's cracked cassette tape lying discarded on a landfill site containing his songs for a lost love is just so powerful. To write lyrics in such a revealing and dramatically effective, intriguing way is a rare talent.
“Cicily”, a play to music about a female spy, contains the wonderful line ‘we all do what we need to get through’. I was left wondering if there was a point when a band are in the studio that they realise they are in the process of producing something exceptional, something extraordinarily special? “Godzilla vs. The Island of Manhattan”, “Disney’s Ice Parade” and “A Relatively Famous Victory” all conjure up images so strong you that you actually become a voyeur watching the stories as they unfold.
“A Relatively Famous Victory” has the definition of love with ‘we could live in Paris or London, build a cottage on a Scottish Island and lie there and feel the waves attack the shore’. Melancholy, sad, and yet never cloying or overloaded, indeed sometimes uplifting this album is life – real life – the life we are surrounded by. The life we are living.
“Empty Throat” and the intriguingly entitled “ We Can Leap Buildings And Rivers But Really We Just Wanna Fly” both work on every level with the triumphantly sensual undertones of the latter leading into one of the album’s darker pieces “Above The Clouds The Sun Is Always Shining”. Whilst the album contains lyrics of sprawling depth and imagination this track is simplicity itself and yet it works just as effectively. Betraying its "Don’t Worry Be Happy" style title it is the definition of loneliness and isolation and is built entirely around ‘You’re walking home and you’re on your own and your mobile phone has no news at all’. Just as you, in that situation, would repeatedly check to see if there are any messages, the songs does exactly that, over and again, brilliantly building the unsettling sense of loneliness.
“Picture Show” and “Absent Friends” maintain the album’s extraordinary impact through to its conclusion. This is an album that will have you reading every word of the lyrics, telling your friends to be quiet and will have you scuttling off, just like me, to buy Ballboy’s back catalogue. A truly remarkable album.