Book Review: The Empire City: Songs of Wellington

cv_the_empire_cityAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

The Empire City: Songs of Wellington acts as a perfect representation of the New Zealand capital, from past to present. A collection of songs by Andrew Laking, paintings by Bob Kerr, and various historical photographs of the city, this book spans the city of Wellington from Willam Wakefield’s arrival in 1839 through to the end of the 20th Century.

Simply, it is a book of song lyrics, with paintings and pictures, and a few historical notes. Each song is preceded by information about the subject. ‘This is the Time’ tells of the first three decades of the 20th century and the effect of the First World War on Wellington, ‘Red Stands for The Cuba’ gives life to the well-known Cuba Street and where the name originates from. The Empire City stands as a historical notebook for Wellington, wrought through history and song.

It opens up with a painting reminiscent of ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’ by Caspar David Friedrich, composed just a decade before Wakefield’s arrival in Wellington. This starting point places the book in a historical context and begins by evoking the early 19th Century. The book then moves forward from there, covering major historical points in Wellington’s past. Each section, through a combination of song, pictures and words, evokes a specific point in the past, rendering it visible to the reader through a beautiful combination of art.

Once the accompanying CD is played, and one follows its songs through the book, a new world is opened up. The paintings and photographs tell the history just as much as the words, they move forward in time along with the music. The paintings of Bob Kerr that surround the first song, ‘The Colonist’, picture Willam Wakefield moving through the landscape before the city sprung up. The instrumental introduction helps this movement along with its subdued guitars and folksy atmosphere. Similarly, the photographs that span ‘At the Wharves’, ‘This is the Time’, and ‘Mayor George Troup’, perfectly recall Wellingtons physical past. Alongside this, the music evokes the feeling of the time. At some points jazz themes move into the songs, at others a more folk style takes over. Even the 60’s and 70’s come through in songs like ‘After the War’ and ‘Wide Open Street’.

The music, alongside the paintings and photography, helps to evoke the historical time referenced in the songs. The words themselves also begin to feel more lyrical. The written song words turn poetic, the rhythm clear and inviting, and they move you through the book to the pace of the songs. Even the instrumental bookends to the songs give plenty of time to read the historical notes and gaze at the art on the page.

The three different elements, the words, the pictures, and the music, all combine perfectly with each other to create a single, multifaceted experience. They feel like a perfect representation of the history of Wellington, working together to evoke the art that fills the city.

Reviewed by Matthias Metzler

The Empire City: Songs of Wellington
by Andrew Laking
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864739902

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