It's almost 30 years since the celebrated New York composer Philip Glass arranged Pierce Turner's How it Shone, the Wexfordman's touching paean to his native town. Glass brought all the requisite flourishes - one remembers in particular that great drum or timpani, or whetever it was, banging loudly on the word Shone in the refrain. Glass' careful work helped to turn what was already a great song into a classic.
The composer recently returned to work with Turner, inviting him to perform at his 75th birthday celebrations in Carnegie Hall in February. "I said to him recently, “thank you so much for Carnegie hall,” Pierce recalls on his website. "He replied “ I’m a friendly guy, but I’m not that friendly, I’m doing it because I like your music.” They also played together at the Tibetan House benefit Concert at Carnegie Hall in 2010.
The song they do together (Turner on piano, singing, Glass on synthesiser) is the first track on this new album, Yogi with a Broken Heart which tells the true story of a devotee of yoga who, broken-hearted in love, turns to cocaine and a self-destructive path. (Pierce explains the genesis of the song below before Glass and Turner perform the song together here).
Reviewing Yogi with a Broken Heart, as performed at Carnegie Hall, The New York Times declared it “a cross between Joni Mitchell and opera.” “Soaring and reminiscent of David Bowie,” enthused Rolling Stone. Regina Spektor said “wow,” appparently.
Turner has an ambitious approach, a tendency to seek out the epic in the performance of his often deliciously melodic songs. How can I make this bigger? you feel he is thinking. But it's a tendency which has been reined in on the last two albums, while the new album is similarly restrained.
Complemented by astute brass, strings and percussion arrangements, Songs for a Verry Small Orchestra sets out to tell its stories without the visceral punchiness that characterised the first two Turner albums, It's Only A Long Way Across (1987) and The Sky and the Ground (1989).
The wistful Snow, for example, perfectly captures that sense of entrapment that being snowbound entails, the feeling that you should be frightfully busy somewhere else, rather than doing nothing at home. It plays on a kind of salaried worker guilt about being absent from work. But its weather report is subtly pointing at a more profound restlessness in the human psyche.
I'm Never Down for Long unashamedly borrows its melody from the hymn, Soul of My Saviour. Indeed Pierce was once a choir boy and this beautiful hymn would have been part of the standard repertoire. It's not the first time he has drawn on wonderful churchy echoes. Many of his songs have a kind of sanctity, a certain pure-as-the-driven-snow quality.
Using an ordinary workaday domestic scenario, It Really Should Be Working explores the tendency to believe that uncomplicated happiness is always within our grasp. He's the Guy She Adores - one of the most appealing songs on the record - teases the futility of going on loving someone after love breaks down.
It's not easy to get such a tremulous thing as that down in song, but Pierce Turner can do it - just check out Don't Want Her to Feel That Way or All Messed Up from the great Now Is Heaven album. It needs heart to write such songs, but it also needs musical organisation and focus. Pierce is one of the rare ones who has all three gifts.