I’d almost given up trying to review Jonathan Bree’s recent show at Moth Club, mainly because I just didn’t have a new angle. Last year I did an enthusiastic spaff about his show at the Visions Festival, and while the causes of that spaff were all still present, how do you write about them twice without needless repetition? I gave up trying and read a book instead. Thankfully, that book was by John Higgs.
John Higgs came onto my radar via his book The KLF: Chaos, Magic & The Band Who Burned A Million Pounds. It’s great. Don’t give a flying one about the KLF? Doesn’t matter. Read it anyway. Read it and you too will learn about Discordianism, The Illuminatus! Trilogy, Ken Campbell, Doctor Who, the Greek goddess Eris and much, much more. Sure, Higgs connects them via their influence on a pop band who split up 25 years ago, but they’ve got a sufficiently interesting story that even if you don’t care for their music, it’s still a highly entertaining read.
Higgs’ latest is called The Future Starts Here: Adventures In The Twenty-First Century. It’s an attempt to cut through the hyperbole and nihilism of science fiction and offer practical solutions on how to build a better future. Which could be a bit dry, but one of Higgs’ strengths is his sheer readability. He writes in an engaging, accessible way, sometimes disappearing down a rabbit hole but always, always taking you with him. He has fast become one of my favourite writers, and I tend to come out of his books fired up and inspired. In this one, he talks a lot about our current circumambient mythos and how it differs from that of the 20th century.
One bit in particular really stuck in my head. Talking about where our culture is right now, Higgs hits on Metamodernism. Also called Post-Postmodernism, it’s defined by Luke Turner in The Metamodernist Manifesto as “the mercurial condition between and beyond irony and sincerity, naivety and knowingness, relativism and truth, optimism and doubt”. Metamodernism requires one to embrace contradictions, as they can live beside one another perfectly comfortably.
And lo! Back to Bree. I’m reckoning there’s an argument that Bree is best understood as a metamodernist artist. On the one hand, he and his band perform both onstage and in their videos in blank white facemasks. There is no stage ‘banter’: he introduces no songs, and at no point does he stop to wonder if you’re having a good time out there. There’s a clear separation between audience and performer, exacerbated by the masks. Yet on the other hand, you can find him by the merch stall after the show engaging with his audience as we patiently queue for the obligatory selfie or to get albums signed. Admittedly he only communicates one-on-one via gesture, but that consistency only adds to the charm: even when face-to-mask, there is no compromise in the Jonathan Bree Experience. This is unfortunate if – like me – you have a tendency to babble nervously when presented with massive gaps in conversation. The masks emphasise multiple metamodernist contradictions: useful to hide behind, yes, but Bree’s lyrics can often appear deeply confessional. “When our eyes meet / there’s no poetry / no symphony / it’s only lousy infidelity”, for example.
Bree also self-describes as a ‘master of misery’, but there’s a sense of humour at work. The videos that accompany each song while he performs are surreal and funny, peppered with cameos from an incredibly memeworthy cat. His music is influenced by 60s chamber pop, he and his band wear retro clothing and use period-correct Op Art style animations, but the production of his recordings is shiny and modern. Other writers have noted avant-garde leanings in his arrangements, but these songs – as illustrated by mass singalongs to ‘You’re So Cool’ and ‘Valentine’ – are clearly capital ‘p’ Pop. The one new song played tonight (obviously without fanfare or introduction) builds on the template set out by Sleepwalking closer ‘Fuck It’ by edging his sound ever closer to pure pop music. It’s all thunderous drums, epic strings and synth riffs, still very much a Jonathan Bree song but reminiscent of Depeche Mode circa Everything Counts. It sounds like it should be a hit, but to be fair so does half of Sleepwalking.
Spotting the contradictions becomes addictive, worryingly so when I start contemplating the weather: for a seemingly nocturnal artist, Jonathan Bree seems to bring the sun with him when he plays in London. Last time I saw him was the hottest day of the hottest summer, this time it also feels like the hottest day of the year so far. London weather: STOP GETTING JONATHAN BREE WRONG.
You may by now be thinking that this is all lovely, but was the gig any good? Well, HELL yes. Yes, it was. You don’t overthink a performance you didn’t enjoy. Well, I don’t. I might sulk a bit, but I’d move on soon enough. Bree puts on a superb show with an imaginative, arresting visual presentation and genuinely great songs. Moth Club is the perfect venue for Bree’s music, with its golden glittery ceiling and signs requesting that we remove children from the dance floor after 9pm (surviving vestiges of an earlier life as a Working Men’s Club). So yes. Yes, it was excellent, and you should absolutely go see him when you get the chance. Did I overthink it a bit? Possibly. But how else do you react when confronted with a blank white slate in place of a face? You – or at least I – babble. Hard.