Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered by Shawn Biggs at Studio Paradiso, San Francisco, California
Not sure where James Milne does his daydreaming and imaging, but it must be nice. It must be one of those places that would be great to vacation to. It must look like an exotic arrangement of people and scenery that you always find something new in -- that you maybe don't even recognize as people or as scenery. It could be that what he's looking out at, what he's seeing is just a blizzard of craziness. Or, it all looks normal as all hell and he just gives these things that he sees the stories that he wants them to have. He likes imagining that the Greek gods are out and about, just running errands and that all of the residents of Atlantis are popping up into the big, dry city to get their Apple products of the new season of 30 Rock on DVD or something like that, but along the way, they encounter all of these autograph seekers and people with cell phone cameras.
It's not necessarily clear what Milne, the New Zealander responsible for the impressive musical project that goes by the name of Lawrence Arabia, thinks is normal. There are parts to his songs where you find that the specifics of his matter and the details that he's concerned with are nothing but the mundane until he spins a yarn like "Atlantis," part spoken word, thespian introduction and part David Bowie-Ziggy Stardust space and Milky Way ballad, where you're suddenly confronted by the understanding that he's some partial madman, an English professor, a romantic and a nerd all wrapped up into one. He probably has a collection of ascots, blazers and pipes that could keep him clothed fashionably and smoking the sweet cherry tobacco for longer than we could ever believe.
Milne's songs are dashing pieces of intricacies, soft blends of wordiness and innocence that make for a something like a dreamland of escapes and pursuits. He calls on the "gods of our legends" and those creators of basic dramas of literature to give him the makings of songs that fly in different levels of the sky than other writers. It's taking the best of mythology and the dirtiness and obscurities of living as a normal man trying to keep his head above the water and take enough showers that he can be attractive to someone of worth someday and making it all feel as if there's magic in it. It's adding some of that god-like pixie dust to the recognition that, "once again I find that the toenails need clipping," and that the nose hairs are dripping and dropping out of the nostrils in unkempt and nasty ways.
The characters that we seem to find in the songs that Milne writes are those likely OK with being shut-ins, but those books that they can't stop reading have made them unstoppably curious. They have wild enough minds to ask for more and to want to be more. They can't just let the hair get scraggly and long (so much less like a gangster than they ever hoped it would get) and they can't just let their toenails reign yellow and wretchedly long. He sings, "I don't need much, just the sound of a steel guitar/The sound of my own voice," but it's a ruse. He needs much more than that. He needs the bliss of his constructs. He needs the ingestions that it takes to get to them - to get the sculptures going, to get the wet clay in his hands. He then lets them disfigure themselves and then he's got his new circle of friends - those interesting lads that he's always wanted to share his home with.
*Essay originally published December, 2011