It’s impossible to describe Alex Neilson’s sophomore solo album Otterburn without first addressing the cataclysmic event that led up to it. On the 29th of April 2017, Alex’s brother Alastair died peacefully and unexpectedly in his sleep on his canal boat in Leeds. The youngest of three boys, Alastair embodied all his family’s best qualities and was a charming and spontaneous friend to anyone lucky enough to cross his path.
The trope that heartbreak yields an artist’s best work is a tired one, but what of bereavement? Grief is a complex monster. For those skilled at building songs, it can provide a new set of tools and floor plans. Otterburn heaves with despair, but brings with it too an idiosyncratic sense of the comic.
Otterburn reunites Alex with a couple of his Trembling Bells band mates; Lavinia Blackwall – her voice as true as church bells – and Mike Hastings – who is reaching Brian Jones levels of multi-instrumentalist brilliance. But this is a very different beast to the Bells. Otterburn has an ad-hoc intimacy and ability to make the epic seem small and the small seem epic that pitches it closer to Desire-era Dylan than Folk Rock aristocracy. The rest of the assembled company (Alasdair Roberts, Dave McGowan, Rory Haye et al) are among Scotland’s finest.
Forged in pain and made in Glasgow, making a very decent case for the old adage about the cream rising to the top. Lap it up.