Beverly Glenn-Copeland The Ones Ahead Transgressive
Every few years, there is a flurry of excitement as an artist is “rediscovered”. Old cassettes, records and master tapes are dusted off to produce slick reissues, sparking fresh reappraisal and lengthy column inches on everyone from Nick Drake to Julius Eastman, Arthur Russell and, most recently, Beverly Glenn-Copeland.
Since 2015, the remarkable, operatic voice of American singer Glenn-Copeland has found a new audience who are enthralled by his emotive vibrato, poetic lyrics and propensity for synth and drum machine experimentalism. It was the 2017 reissue of 1986’s Keyboard Fantasies that cemented Glenn-Copeland as a master of New Age songwriting, infusing his euphoric lyrics on the enduring power of love and nature with clattering drum programming and the metallic, preset tones of the Roland TR-707 and Yamaha DX7 synthesisers.
Glenn-Copeland’s self-produced, hermetic compositions play like a unique time capsule: a sprawling document of his time spent creating in quiet cabins and peaceful bedrooms, shut off from the noise of the outside world. Famous fans have since caught on to his deeply personal sound, with a 2021 remix album producing new takes on Keyboard Fantasies by the likes of Bon Iver, Arca, Kelsey Lu and Blood Orange. Yet, there hasn’t been an entirely original Glenn-Copeland studio album since 2004’s Primal Prayer, making the 2023 release of The Ones Ahead something of a landmark.
Across nine new compositions, Glenn-Copeland sets out his stall for a fresh sound. Gone are the synths and drum programming of Keyboard Fantasies and instead we hear a gorgeous showcase of Glenn-Copeland’s voice, which has matured from his delicate tenor into a rich and husky warmth. Opener Africa Calling acts as a percussive bridge to earlier, more rhythmic tracks like the breakbeat-driven In the Image from 2004. Except, here, the grid-based digital programming of breaks is supplanted by the polyrhythmic drumming of Glenn-Copeland’s West African heritage. It sets a theme for the record as a whole: where Glenn-Copeland’s most revered earlier work was praised for its futuristic bent, now he is luxuriating in the music of his origins, largely putting aside the electronics in favour of the voice and its cinematic power.
Highlights come when Glenn-Copeland showcases how his vocals have strengthened with time rather than faltered. Over the thumping timpani percussion and horns of People of the Loon, he ascends from an ominous baritone to reach the heights of the choral harmonies in the chorus, entreating the listener to “hear us”. And it is a truly joyous sound once we get to the lively Stand Anthem, where Glenn-Copeland calls for us to stand up against the climate crisis and bolsters his defiant message with a foundation of hand-drummed percussion.
These anthems for collective change are balanced by a number of more introspective, personal ballads. Harbour (Song for Elizabeth) is a gorgeous piano duet dedicated to Glenn-Copeland’s wife and longtime creative partner, featuring the luxuriant guest vocal of Jeremy Costello over cymbal washes and a languorous, descending chord line. The swirling eddies of Nick Dourado’s piano melody and Kurt Inder’s slide guitar on Love Takes All work equally well accompanying Glenn-Copeland’s balladry, bringing to mind the yearning soundscapes of Joni Mitchell or Carole King.
Yet, it’s a fine line between Glenn-Copeland’s emotive softness and a slightly cloying sense of wistfulness. On Prince Caspian’s Dream, for instance, we stray close to Disney soundtrack territory, thanks to a misplaced, tripping flute melody. The ululations and dramatic countermelodies of No Other are similarly jarring, lacking the subtlety of Glenn-Copeland’s typically deft, understated production. Still, these are only slight issues in an otherwise cohesive and enduringly engaging work that marks a new beginning well into Glenn-Copeland’s illustrious career. As an artist in his late 70s, The Ones Ahead proves that he still has a mighty voice and the bravery to present it at the forefront of his music. With vocals as consistently stirring as his, there is no need for reissues and remastering – it’s clear that Glenn-Copeland has plenty more to say, and here’s hoping we will continue to hear whatever that may be.