In which The Filthy Tongues lead us from Calvary Cross to Grassmarket gallows in a seamless yet angular odyssey. The opening title track with its “I can see Jerusalem at the top of the hill” sounds like Metcalfe’s nailed to Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen’s crucifixion wood. It’s possible that the following line “I can see Jerusalem in the grip of denial” is Metcalfe elliptically sharing his view of current Israeli government policy. What’s certain is the tone of foreboding is set quickly by this opening track.
A fiddle creeps in as if Bob Dylan’s Desire has turned blacker than black and over eight tracks the ladder shakes twixt Heaven and Earth with Metcalfe never relinquishing this terse tension – but a hard-won humanity surges through the tone of foreboding.
Unsettling guitars prowl and ooze through the album, perhaps peaking in High – as a propulsively drummed up avenging angel stalks the Himmel über Edinburgh. Much like the gorgeously Gothic capital city that backdrops these tracks, The Filthy Tongues’ sound is at once claustrophobic and widescreen, devilishly summoned by Metcalfe and long-serving cohorts Fin Wilson and Derek Kelly. (Whilst an arresting debut for the Isa-less Filthy Tongues, this record is the latest addition to an oeuvre stretching back to the portent-laced late eighties rock of the trio’s former outfit, Goodbye Mr Mackenzie).
Taken in its dark, dense entirety, Jacob’s Ladder is a danse macabre in flickering candlelight with allusion aplenty to the consumption of low wines. This is an Edinburgh where smack’s been slipped through portals into Mary King’s Close, spirits of all kinds mashed through coal holes and smuggled out in coffins. An Edinburgh peopled, Hunger City-style, by what Metcalfe terms Children of the Filthy, “all the broken children” who “shine in the dark”.
The Filthy Tongues hold a skeleton key to unlock what lies under Auld Reekie’s hidden vaulted arches with its taverns and cobblers, illicit stills, brothels and dealers descending from Messrs Burke and Hare. What’s “down in the cave, north of the river,” when that river is the Nor’ Loch. And yet this is a walk of no shame. Knees up, Deacon Brodie: vitality’s king. Hear how Long Time Dead kicks away a hobbling junkie’s crutches and dances through a crepuscular tour of vibrant ne’er-do-wells, expertly balancing the pros and cons of hedonism in the face of oblivion. “He lost his leg injecting but he had a lot of fun” is but one of several pithy observations Metcalfe drops with élan.
There’s a song of Lou Reed’s called Coney Island Baby, in which he reminds us “Just remember different people have peculiar tastes”. He prefaces this line by singing, “Ah, but remember that the city is a funny place. Something like a circus or a sewer.” Edinburgh sure has been both – a place of the pageant and the putrid. More than any record I’ve yet heard Jacob’s Ladder sings my city to life.