If you’re the type of person who finds the BBC series, The Detectorists, a soothing balm, or for whom a home counties blend of Leonard Cohen, Momus and Seamus Forgarty might seem attractive, then Mr. Alec Bowman is the man for you. I Used To Be Sad & Then I Forgot is a remarkable album, lyrically bleak with an extraordinary bustle of background activity, delivered in the main by producer Josienne Clarke, which delicately supports Bowman’s simple guitar melodies and world weary voice.
With assistance from Paul Mosley on various keyboards, Clarke’s guitars, harmonium, brass and woodwind and ambient sounds offer the album a wonderfully off kilter bucolic feeling which is emphasised by the soft focus capture of Bowman in a field of flowers on the cover. The album would have been a perfect release for harvest Records back in the seventies, sharing a catalogue with Shirley Collins, Roy Harper and Kevin Ayers but we’re in darker days now and Bowman is perfectly suited for these times.
Despite the comparisons, Bowman really transcends these as he stamps his own personality across the album. We don’t know the genesis of these songs but there are hints that they are drawn from personal experience. The sleeve notes mention that they are for, “Confused and misled people who think that not being alive anymore would be a wonderful present that they could give themselves but were too cowardly to act on it – staying alive is its own kind of bravery.” Death hovers across the album and indeed, the album opens with a reverie of sorts as Bowman floats serenely, musing on catastrophic air crashes, on Physics & Form. Next up, A Ditch Worth Dying For is certainly more grounded with its whiff of miserablism, Cohen meets Brel with spectral percussion on bowed cymbals adding to its angst.
Dark indeed but by now Bowman has the listener hooked and the washes of bleached guitar on Safe Mode, a song for modern times and isolation, along with the delicate pastoral sounds of Leaves, with its beguiling wind arrangements, maintain this lure. Long Goodbyes signs off the first half of the album as Bowman, accompanied by a forlorn electric piano, ponders on the pointless power of words.
There’s a short intermission, an organ rendition of The Old Rugged Cross, before Bowman weighs in again on the bleak Patience which refers to Cohen’s famous line about there always being a crack of light which gets in although here Bowman urges those who can’t see that light to persevere despite their hopelessness. From here on in however the album is more optimistic, a reflection perhaps of Bowman’s journey as he gleefully lists a number of grisly ways to die (including we think, a reference to the sad circumstances of Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchison) on Hand In Hand while Event Horizon Of You, an odd combination of physics and Lewis Carroll’s The Walrus & The Carpenter, is quite sublime. My Kind Of Chaos is another gentle whiff of pastoral whimsy as Bowman finds a kindred soul and the album ends with a song which reflects the message from the liner notes quoted above. Never The End Of The World urges anyone at the end of their tether to hold on and be strong as Bowman sings, “Take a leaf from my story, don’t disappear till it’s time… but don’t take it from me, wait and you’ll see, life is much larger than you.”
I Used To Be Sad & Then I Forgot is a brave album. It’s dark, but then without dark we wouldn’t have any light. And beyond the darkness, the songs, arrangements and performance are quite superb.