Tim Key is definitely an acquired taste. I first experienced him (like many people, I would guess) on Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe. The first time I shrugged. The second I shrugged again. The third time I wondered whether he was serious. The fourth time I realised he wasn't. Because this is not 'poetry', in the strictest sense of the word. It is not delivered with lofty verbosity, unless for sardonic effect, and he regularly stutters and stops, adding little asides on the fly like he forgot to write them down. Basically, it is bad poetry done well.
Tim Key. With A String Quartet. On A Boat. is the comedian's first album - a concept album,“the concept in this case being a man in a tracksuit reading poems, while a string quartet play some of their favourite tunes”. In his usual self-conscious, uncomfortable manner, Key stumbles through a number of short pieces filled with his trademark bathos and incongruousness. Be it the man who hangs around beauty pageant runners-up for a bit of action, or the couple who dine in “ecstatic silence” after the husband catches “an absolutely brilliant fish”, the stories are bewildering in their seemingly random detail and often raise a chuckle out of confusion alone. You quickly learn not to ask why. Think Ivor Cutler meets Stewart Lee.
Berating professional musicians (“can you not put lip balm on while I'm doing a poem, please”) and his friends (“is that the face you're going to do all hour?”) in the process, the poet increasingly falls back on stock classical scores as time at the “floating studio” runs out due to procrastination and tense, unfriendly banter with Tom Basden (of the Cowards comedy troupe). Basden (or Lord) is angry that he is not being allowed to back up Key's poems on the guitar. Key baits him.
A minor criticism is that Key is sometimes too deadpan for his own good, making his one-line pieces a little stilted. A case in point is the three poems about Bob ('Bob And The Pipe', 'Bob And The Octopus' and 'The Tragedy of Bob'), which might work on stage but do not transfer as well onto tape. There are, of course, a number of triumphs, as you's hope from such a critically acclaimed performer. Poem #931, entitled 'Chess', tells the story of a man whose chess set comes to life, “calling him every name under the sun and spitting at him”. 'The Good Driver' charts a day in a life of Gavin Lee Morgan, who insists on letting people out of a junction until the motorists queueing behind him “take their jacks to his flanks”. 'How To Behave If You're Trapped On An Island With A Giant (But The Giant Is Ill)' speaks for itself.
Comedy albums can be a frustrating experience. All too often comics don't adapt their style enough for the medium, creating a gulf between joke and audience. Luckily for Tim Key, his approach is pitched at just the right level, requiring enough imagination on the part of the listener to make it more than just silly. At points it drags, but Tim Key. With A String Quartet. On A Boat. is as good an introduction as any to Key's off-kilter insanity and love of everyday nonsense.
7Sam Walby's Score