There’s an old spinet, probably a hundred years old, on the top floor of the other side of the art collective I live in. While I had my laundry going in the basement, I walked up the winding stairs to the spinet, which literally sits under a plateau of mirrors beneath a skylight. There was a slight misty rain coming through the window next to the piano. I was just messing around on the spinet, playing a few chords here and there, and banged out “I’ll Come Running” from memory a few times until I could play the whole thing at the proper rhythm and tempo. What a simple song–it’s like a children’s song, only a few arpeggios in a few keys, like something I would have played when I started taking piano lessons. (I quit piano lessons at age 17, and my skills have atrophied significantly in the decade-plus since). But the song’s apparent simplicity is deceptive. I played it in C, picking out the vocal melody line in diads with my left hand to simulate the tenor of the voice, and using my right hand for the bright cascades of arpeggios. It would have been so much easier to play if I had recorded the arpeggios first in Garageband or something and then overdubbed the other parts on top of it. Playing the parts of the song synchronously is tricky, especially on a creaky out-of-tune piano, but with each successive iteration (about six tries) I got decent enough at it. Then I made a stab at “St Elmo’s Fire,” promptly gave up, and went downstairs to switch my clothes to the dryer. Compared to the complicated, heavily layered ambience evident in so many of the other songs on Another Green World, “I’ll Come Running” sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s poppy and sentimental, but that’s part of what makes it so memorable. It’s far easier to replicate on a piano than, say, “On Some Faraway Beach” on Here Come the Warm Jets, another song that gives off the appearance of a straightforward ballad, only to reveal itself as a castle in the air, built of layers of dreamy backing vocals, lead vocals, and intricate keyboard lines that weave in and out of each other.
In German, “castle in the air” translates to “Luftschloss,” and that’s the title of an (instrumental) piano ballad on After the Heat (1978), also sort of oddly placed around the middle of the album, and also very graceful in its own way. It sounds like Roedelius playing the main melody–he has this legendary flair for elegant work with keyboards; the layers upon layers of unearthly sounds that grow around the main melody are so subtle they almost go unnoticed. The key word is “almost.”