After 2007’s Gyllyng Street, Songs of Green Pheasant (aka Duncan Sumpner) disappeared. Which, in hindsight, didn’t seem all that surprising: Sumpner’s dreamy, psych‑y folk-pop was so ephemeral that it seemed kind of fitting for him to fade away. But, five years later, Sumpner has returned with a new collection of songs titled Soft Wounds, and it’s as if the intermediate years never happened. Chalk it up to his music’s “unstuck in time” quality.
“Teen Wolf” opens Soft Wounds on a note of disconnection as Sumpner sings “Looking down on oak trees like a pilot” backed by a delicate lattice of acoustic guitar, percussion, and lonesome trumpet. At times, his voice, wrapped in reverbed harmonies, threatens to drift away — as if he’s having some lingering doubts about returning after all these years and wants to disappear again. But thankfully, the album, and Sumper, stays with us, with lovely results. For example, “Deaf Sarah” is an effortless pop song that picks up where The Clientele left off with their last album: it begs to be listened to while walking down the street, jacket hood turned up to keep out the autumn chill, and watching the leaves drift down from the trees high overhead.
“Mirror” is the album’s emotional crux, as Sumpner plaintively asks “Little one, why are you standing so far away?” over sparse piano notes. But the one he addresses may no longer be with us: “The sun sinks on the graves/Where all the kids died of boredom/It’s not real,” he sighs. Drones and trumpet add to a sense of loss and alienation while the lyrics grow more surreal (“All the faces in the windows turn to mine in silence”) as “Mirror” builds towards its climax. Actually, “climax” may be the wrong word given the song’s gentle denouement; Sumpner simply ends up singing “It’s alright,” but given his music’s fragility, the sense of resignation/acceptance may be enough.
If “Mirror” is Soft Wounds’ emotional crux, then the multi-part, 9+ minute “Flesheaters” is its aesthetic one. In many ways, with its diversity of moods and sounds, the song feels like an EP or album in and of itself — especially when compared to the brevity that characterizes much of his music. It also feels like a rough sketch at times, with Sumpner mumbling in the background as if still working out his lyrics. The song’s latter half is when it all comes together, literally: he strips the song down and slowly builds it back up using layers of ghostly vocals, drones, guitars, drums, and violin. The process is quite engrossing.
I understand why some might dismiss Songs of Green Pheasant’s music. Songs like “Deaf Sarah,” “Mirrors,” and “Flesheaters” are fey, slight, and “barely there,” and Sumpner makes no effort to make his music more “gritty” or “earthy” (though Soft Wounds does seem more stripped down than its predecessors). Any of his songs can easily sink into the background, and indeed, they seem most comfortable there. But Soft Wounds proves, once again, that Sumpner’s music possesses an uncanny ability to emerge from the background when you least expect it to and pierce you through with some well-placed melody or bit of atmospherica.