At first glance the disciplines of poetry and lyricism may appear rather similar. After all, both are styles of writing usually far more concerned with abstract meaning and pleasing rhythm than normal prose. However, look a little deeper and it soon becomes apparent that the two schools of writing require a wholly different skill set. Whilst it’s an inviting proposition to set poetry to music, it’s an experiment that rarely works.
Diagrams, then, take something of a risk with their third effort ‘Dorothy’. It’s a collection of songs that sets the words of poet Dorothy Trogden to a warm, elegant backing of folk and woozy electronica. The very nature of this album sets it apart as a distinctly ambitious album. Whilst the group may not have to worry about coming up with a compelling set of lyrics, they do have a whole different issue to content with: that of creating music that matches poetry written decades ago.
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Perhaps surprisingly, ‘Dorothy’ is an album that actually succeeds in its lofty ambition; it’s an album that puts melody to words that originally had none – no easy feat – and it’s a very comfortable fit. Trogen’s profoundly personal poetry works well in a musical context; to the point where, if you were to hear the album with any knowledge of it or it’s context, you may well believe that the lyrics were specifically for the album.
Musically Diagrams create a hushed glow of homely acoustic guitars peppered with subtly abstract electronics. It’s a musical atmosphere that serves the often softly sad words well and treats them with a respect clearly born of long-term fandom. Though ‘Dorothy’ is an album that finds a sonic hallmark and sticks closely to it, it’s such a short listen – it doesn’t even scrape half an hour – that it avoids the risk of becoming repetitive. If the instrumental palette is consistent throughout the album, then the atmosphere and tempo do vary. At times it wistfully sways, awash with soft guitars and relaxed vocals whilst at other times it picks up to a fair pace with punchy brass reinforcing the consistently strong melodies.
The Beatlesesque stomp of ‘I Tell Myself’ is one of the album’s more immediate moments, the incessant stabs of brass keeping a solid sense of forward momentum going throughout. The bright rollick of ‘Motherload’ likewise supplies an immediate hook, however nothing on ‘Dorothy’ is inaccessible per se. While it is an album perhaps ripe to be made-the-most-of after a few listens, initial playthrough certainly won’t be much of a challenge.
It’s something of a pleasant surprise to see how well ‘Dorothy’ actually works. Plenty of musicians have set poetry to music before and, whilst it has certainly provided some delights in the past, it’s an area of music that historically has had hit-and-miss results. With ‘Dorothy’, Diagrams manage to craft an album that doesn’t flaunt the fact that it takes its words from the world of poetry, and which allows it to exist as an impressive piece of work in its own right, not simply by the standards of poetry/music crossovers. ‘Dorothy’ is a respectful expansion on its source material and a fine piece of immersive, soothing indie folk.