Lal and Mike Waterson’s 1972 album Bright Phoebus is a lost classic, little-heard but revered by almost everyone who hears it. It’s probably your favorite folk singer’s favorite folk album, and in fact inspired a tribute record back in 2002, with luminaries like Richard Thompson and Billy Bragg singing its songs. A new Domino reissue marks the first time it’s been in print since its initial run of a thousand. But it may be too strange to secure a permanent place in the canon.

Yes, it is very good, but it is not immediate in the way a lot of lost gems that worm their way into record nerds’ core collections—Judee Sill, say—are. Many will find “Rubber Band” too droll. The songs are starkly arranged, angular in composition and only occasionally pretty. Lal’s voice can be grating; Mike’s is militantly British. And the lyrics don’t give themselves up lightly. But over time it reveals itself as a sly, subversive folk album—the kind that nags at the back of your head, even if you don’t think much of it at first, and compels you to probe deeper into its secrets.

Lal’s knotty lyrics revel in contradiction: ancient and modern, hopeful and profoundly unhappy. The songs are written like Child ballads but couldn’t be set anytime but the 20th century: “Never Like This” implies the threat of nuclear war; in two separate songs characters meet their grisly deaths in car accidents, perhaps the same one. “Magical Man” seems more timeless, a pitch for a traveling showman who pulls rabbits out of hats, but it’s interesting how the title character sells himself as the “original” magical man. Perhaps the time for magical men is over.

It’s grim stuff even by the standards of British folk, which never shies from the gruesome. By the time “Magical Man” fades out and Lal starts singing about someone named Johnny, you already know Johnny’s story isn’t going to end well. Children are sacrificed and abandoned to the elements, and after you’ve heard the pagan horror of “The Scarecrow,” the eerily smiling sun on the cover starts to look a bit ominous, like an ancient heathen god waiting to be appeased.

It’s also deeply ironic, and if it has an overarching flaw, it’s that the irony can be a bit obvious. For instance, “Winifer Odd” dies while distracted by her “lucky star.” “Danny Rose,” the one with the car crash, uses a rockabilly beat to frame its cautionary tale in the format of the teen-tragedy pop song. And there’s not much real reason for Sgt. Pepper pastiches “Rubber Band” and “Magical Man” to exist except to provide a contrast to the bitter, acrid music surrounding them.

But it’s hopeful at times, and its moments of sincerity blindside us. After hearing the Watersons torture their characters for so long, the empathy of “Shady Lady” is a relief in spite of the song’s unsavory implication that a little sun and surf is all you need to cure your sadness. The title track is an unfettered and unironic vision of hope: “Today bright Phoebus, she shined down on me for the very first time,” sings Mike, interestingly gender-flipping the Greek god of the sun. The song ends on an immaculately delayed guitar chord, further suggesting Sgt. Pepper’s influence.

It’s easy to tell why folkies love this thing so much, and it’s also easy to tell why it floundered upon release. Lal and Mike were members of the Watersons, a popular folk family band in Britain that splintered at the end of the ‘60s. The others went their own way, but Lal and Mike split to make Phoebus with the best players on the British folk scene (neither Waterson plays an instrument, which seems astonishing in a milieu that prefers singers to keep their hands busy).

No doubt consumers of the day saw this as the Watersons reduced, the electric folk equivalent of Julian Casablancas and Fab Moretti making an album together. In reality, the duo format let them bounce their wildest ideas off each other, and a set of mostly acoustic demos on the second disc give us an idea of how these songs came together. They sound like they’re having fun working them out, singing about dead kids and killer priests like they were whistling on the way to market—the kind of delightfully creepy contrast Bright Phoebus makes its specialty.

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