Stephen Nunns composes album inspired by T.S. Eliot’s ‘Waste Land’

'He Do the Police in Different Voices' is a playful new musical translation of one of the world’s most famous and challenging poems.

Composer Stephen Nunns’ new album, He Do the Police in Different Voices, is an exciting musical translation of one of the world’s most famous and challenging poems, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Nunns, a director, author, Towson University professor, and co-founder of the Baltimore-based theater company The Acme Corporation, was inspired to adapt the poem for the stage after directing several Samuel Beckett plays and an adaptation of a Gertrude Stein book. As he puts it, “I was looking for something in a modernist mode…why not go to one of the classic examples of modernist literature?”

Stephen Nunns, composer of the new album ‘He Do the Police in Different Voices’; T.S. Eliot, author of ‘The Waste Land.’

Re-reading Eliot’s poem, he found it “kaleidoscopic,” with “a lot of different characters’ voices,” which felt “theatrical in a Chekhovian, character-oriented sort of way,” and began work in 2019. He intended He Do the Police in Different Voices to be performed on stage as a rock opera that would be about, as he described it,

a day in the life of a poet named Tom who, over the course of an evening, encounters a variety of characters including a drunken cockney woman, a blind seer, a fortune teller and a young disillusioned office typist. Along the way, he is haunted by the ghosts of his ex-wife (who was committed to an asylum) and a lover who died in World War I.

But COVID halted that live-theater plan, and so Nunns turned the project into an album, released in late 2021.

Those familiar with The Waste Land will notice slight differences between He Do the Police and the original, with the 16 songs in a different order and a few cuts. Nunns was determined both “to religiously use the text as it exists” and also “to work in a popular song format,” which required some changes. Indeed, he named the project He Do the Police in Different Voices after Eliot’s original title for the poem, “because it’s not The Waste Land.”

One major difference in the album is its much lighter, joyful feel, helped by the catchy music, which is done in a variety of styles. “A Handful of Dust” has a fast, rock ‘n’ roll–like beat, the singer evoking the sound of the rock band Edie Brickell & New Bohemians in “What I Am.” “Death by Water” feels like a jazz tune with elements of rock in the middle, and the singer is reminiscent of Janis Joplin. Even “A Game of Chess,” which in the original can feel like a woman losing control, here gives her question “What are you thinking of?” a softly emotional plea. “At the Violet Hour” speeds up and slows down throughout, making the sexual encounter sound more pleasant than described. Many of these songs would feel right at home as part of a musical.

Album cover for He Do the Police in Different Voices,’ which was named after Eliot’s working title for ’The Waste Land.’

The album captures the poem’s diverse voices and mix of cultures East and West as well as high and low. The first song, “April,” begins with a radio clicking on, and the faint voices of old-time music hall banter. “Unreal City” starts with the tolling of a bell, like Big Ben, as well as the sounds of people walking in the streets. “Hurry Up, Please” has the chatter of people in the pub throughout; the singer, in her rough, Cockney accent, might have the most distinctive voice in the album. In fact, with her singing cruel truths, the song could be the album’s angriest. The final song, “Shanti,” ends with a small bell chiming and an Eastern-sounding musical instrument while the singer speaks the last few lines of the poem, “these fragments I have shored against my ruins.”

Nunns has created something new and fun out of a classic, serious poem, which, when it appeared in 1922, was itself a shockingly new collage of older quotations, sources, and voices. While some familiarity with The Waste Land might help, the distinct music characters will pull listeners of all experiences through the sometimes-baffling lyrics. Nunns is currently working to put a theater version on stage for next year, and seeing this work performed dramatically, as he originally planned, will be wonderful. Until then, download the album and enjoy a playful, inspired musical experiment.

Running Time: 65 minutes.

He Do the Police in Different Voices is available for listening and purchased download on Bandcamp


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here