It has been a year since Norwegian Black Metallers Ulver released the celebrated “War of the Roses” album, and it has been an audacious move to release “Childhood’s End” as a follow up. Producing an album of cover versions of psychedelic tunes from the sixties, may, on first encounter, appear to be another worrying sacrilege. Rather than attempt to recreate the ambience of the originals however, Ulver have embraced the tunes and welcomed them into their fold.
The album opens with the Pretty Things “Bracelets of Fingers”, which faithfully recreates the joyous mood of the original, whilst still clinging enigmatically onto a contemporary sound. “Lament of the Astral Cowboy” (by now you get the general idea) is a more obscure cover of a Curt Boettcher tune, and again pays homage to the original without twisting its unique meaning out of shape. Gandalf’s “Can You Travel in the Dark Alone?” evokes the perceptible sixties ideology, as does the Jefferson Airplane’s “Today”. Probably the reference point for most listeners to the album who are unfamiliar with the more esoteric tunes on offer will be The Electric Prunes “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night”.
Already reasonably familiar to the most hardened sceptic, the tune here is given a thoroughly modern make over for relevance to the modern listening experience, yet still retains the untamed psychedelia of the original. As the album progresses the cover versions explore more deeply the principles of the sixties subcultures with the Beau Brummels “Magic Hollow” and the United States of America “Where is Yesterday?” to close.
The album itself was recorded over a three year period, but never sounds fractured as a result, but has the spirit of a labour of love to share the music that has stirred both music and memories from years gone by. It would be truculent to dismiss “Childhood’s End” as simply an album of cover versions of fifty year old tunes. Indeed there have been many fine cover versions throughout the history of music that could be argued to have surpassed the original (Johnny Cash “Hurt”?). The album cover features the iconic 1972 Nick Ut photograph of the nine year old Phan Thi Kim Phuc running towards the camera following a napalm attack. That image, and the imagery evoked on the album serves as a poignant tribute to the artists and activists of that era.
There is much here for the casual listener to learn from, particularly as many of the tracks are unfamiliar and uncommon. It is to be hoped that as well as being a remarkable collection of tunes evoking an era long forgotten, or never experienced, for most, the album will direct the listener to the originals and open the door to a treasure trove of music. And, culturally, as we become more interested in retro stylisation, “Childhood’s End” is a practical tool.