Plague Songs is an unusual collection of songs corresponding to the ten Biblical plagues as revealed in the book of Exodus in the Old Testament. The set was conceived by Penny Woolcock, who used the songs (performed in her filmic retelling of the Exodus), as reflected and refracted through the seaside resort area of Margate-in-Kent in southern England. Sponsored and produced by Artangel as part of its guerilla program of sparking contemporary debate on modern culture, and involving as many participants as possible, not only artists but those outside that world, too, who live, work, shop, love, raise children and die in local communities throughout the United Kingdom. A series of live events were performed by local inhabitants, singers and players and were produced by the great musician David Coulter. The Plague Songs recording project was curated and produced by Hal Willner who worked with both Artangel's co-director Michael Morris and Woolcock.
The array of artists here, all picking one of the deck of plagues and contributing original music with titles corresponding is startling: Stephin Merritt, Scott Walker, Laurie Anderson, rapper Klashnekoff, King Creosote, Cody ChesnuTT (sic), the Tiger Lillies, Imogen Heap, Brian Eno with Robert Wyatt, and Rufus Wainwright. Everything here is compelling in one way or another, but there are a few tracks that truly stand out including Walker's "Darkness," it's a near operatic exercise involving a tambourine, and his voice in call and response with an operatic chorus. As the song moves, the chorus incorporates more members, and their intensity grows as his own vocal remains static. Heap's "Glittering Cloud," (the Plague of Locusts) is a tense, little, the mid-tempo full of drum machines and keyboards with her croon over the top, dryly stating at first and becoming more insistent: "Domino motion, jump starts when we touch/The black-out approaching, here it comes now, wish me luck/It's all over it's all over it's all over in a flash/I can't remember, what have I done now?"
"Flies," by Eno and Wyatt, is particularly strange and seductive, beginning with merely the sounds of flies through the electronically layered and processed voices of Wyatt and Hannah Eno, Eno's keyboard treatments of Wyatt's playing, and the guitar of Steve Jones. An almost hymn-like quality moves through the tune before Eno, Hannah, and Wyatt begin to sing the words. It's something beautiful that comes from something very ugly. Anderson's "Fifth Plague" is haunting, hunted, it's just her voice, a bass, a minimal horn arrangement and Peter Scherer's keyboards telling the tale of the death of livestock. Wainwright's last plague is called "Katonah"; it's a blues song sung by Wainwright and Lucy Roche about the death of all the firstborn sons in Egypt reflected through a modern narrative. It's an unassuming, bittersweet tale of sadness and grief. In sum, the album works, not as some grim undertaking, but as an unconventional meditation on not only the plagues themselves, but as popular music first, and as a sideways meditation on how these plagues led the Jews, directly toward the promised land.