"The Model" by Bar PandoraReview
Bar Pandora is not one of those artists whom you ought to second guess, unless you like being wrong.
An innovator & a restless creative spirit, she doesn't seem interested in repeating herself (what after all is the value in that) but prefers to challenge herself & tell new stories with each release.
Finding that the giant Lady Godiva puppet at her eponymous festival was being operated by Charlie Tophill & drummer Matt Rheeston would take some topping in terms of being surprised by them one would think, but latest single "The Model" which is out today manages to do it.
The second fruit of composition subsequent to the material which comprised her self-titled EP, the song will probably shock you (well it did me). If you were thinking from the title that it shared something of the subject matter of the similarly named single by Kraftwerk: think again. Not by a long chalk: again Charlie engages with us by first throwing us a little off balance.
Diverse as her previous songs were, there was however a general allusive approach to the lyrics. Not so now: they are stark, candid & deeply personal. Great songwriters often write in character, so you can't automatically take their work as being necessarily autobiographical. Is this case, that avenue of interpretation is closed off immediately by Charlie being frank as to the personal experiences behind what she's written. Even with leaving specific intimate details out, I put it to her that this only intensified the effect as the listener then attempts to speculate in order to fill in the gaps.
Ironically (though this being Bar Pandora I'm close to certain that this was her intention), the music is actually very listenable: it actually serves to pull you into the track.
Created, as so much of her recent work has been, by Charlie conjuring up mutant & exotic melodic structures which constantly shift over complementary rhythms by using some form of Burroughsian cut up technique on a drum & synth track sent to her by co-producer Simply Dread supplemented by her own instrumental overdubs, it's simply beguiling. Could anyone really fail to salute any artist who then described the result as "a juiced up chimera"? Not me. I must try & use the phrase myself as it's so good. Except I can't conceive of a suitable situation. It probably only applies to things in Bar Pandora's own world.
This chimera sat lyricless for a period of time until what sounds like a revelatory moment born out of personal angst brought the words to her in the Forest of Dean: which seems a good environment for mindfulness, reflection and ultimately, that revelation.
She then set her thoughts to this beautiful track & consequently once she's hooked you, you suddenly realise what she's singing about & consequently what she's been through emotionally to generate such words.
Which brings me to the point in this review I've been avoiding, namely trying to communicate the message to you. Thankfully Charlie has provided quite a lot of the necessary words for us & since it's so personal & her story not mine, it's much better to lean on her description.
We can start I think on the overall intention which she says is "..about choosing resilience, and not letting the bastards grind you down..". Which I think we can all respect & recognise and which others, such as Izzie Derry, Abz Winter, Ivy Ash etc have written about from the local scene alone.
Where Charlie goes though is further into the specific inspirations and so she tells us that "..one of the things I was getting really frustrated with was other people's over-willingness to wade in on my problems, and to rehash past events over and over, way beyond the point of usefulness…. I hear a lot about toxic positivity, but as someone who grew up in challenging circumstances with a lot of anxiety around me, I've always known the opposite problem. I don't think you should ignore or deny bad experiences, but you shouldn't model your whole identity around them either. Don't constantly remind yourself that you're damaged. You'll only feel hopeless.." and therefore ".."what started to emerge was a little defiant voice in my head saying ‘I don't have to live in the shadow of all this shit' and that was it. This song emerged as my defiant ‘no' to that cycle. ‘What if I refuse to live in shadow?' was a question I kept asking myself, and one that I really needed to explore."
After learning that, I feel very inadequate in terms of dissecting the song too much & ultimately, if one respects the sentiments in it, it's respectful to accept it in its entirety without trying to do so.
I was uncomfortable with being let into such intimate thoughts, but after reflection on my part, I came to the conclusion that making people uncomfortable is one of the strategies artists employ from time to time. We need to take from the experience & I think while expressing herself like this, Charlie may be exorcising some demons & aiming for catharsis The Times describes her whole body of work as "...cathartic alt-pop that manages to be simultaneously off-kilter and melodious"), she is also presenting her subjective insights in such a way that we can to some extent apply them to situations of our own.
In hindsight, one wonders to what extent the previous single, "Ultramess" acted as a transition from last year's songs to "The Model"? In retrospect, it certainly does very little to prepare us for the latter (thus enhancing the impact) and had the release schedule been reversed, then I think "Ultramess" would have suffered, trying to follow this one. So a good call.
There is one point which with hindsight means more now than it did at the time: I praised Charlie (while reviewing "Ultramess") along these lines: "..the cool delivery we are already so used to seems even cooler: not so much detached (there is a constant human warmth in there), but at a pace of her own choosing & with a hint of a smile on her lips as she sings: the countenance of one who knows exactly what she wants to do."
Now, I think that a sense of detachment was psychologically necessary to deliver "The Model's" lyrics. Was it a warm up? Well almost certainly not deliberately as that would suggest devaluing of "Ultramess". But it must help her.
I pondered over quoting some of the words & have decided against them. Firstly, this is one song where removing lines from their context will rob them of some value. Secondly, by the time you are reading this, I'll have been hearing the song for some time, having had the privilege of a preview copy. Charlie specifically requested that I not share my thoughts before the actual release so as not to prejudice your own reaction: I'm most happy to go with that. You may not have heard it too many times yet anyway, but regardless, with music this intense, personal, subjective responses are the most appropriate & were you to apply the sentiments of her words to your own circumstances, you won't want mine intruding.
I'm not too sure when you'll be able to hear it live (but knowing the enigmatic nature of this project, a gig could pop up anywhere, any time) but it might be something of a challenge emotionally for her. I am sure she's factored that challenge in, but I do hope that when her audience enjoys her performance of "The Model", then they too give appropriate weight in their response to the issue.
Bar Pandora, in the relatively short period of the project's existence has surprised at every turn. "The Model" however by far the biggest leap thus far & I can only quake in anticipation as to what follows it… If "Ultramess" attracted the attention of Radio 4's Woman's Hour then expect her popping up again nationally with this one.