Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Top 100 Albums - #8: Life In Slow Motion (2005)

At number 8 is Life In Slow Motion, the second and final chart entry for singer-songwriter David Gray.
Gray's fourth album, White Ladder (1999, #58), brought the singer critical acclaim and a series of hit singles throughout the year 2000. The album was finally released in America in March 2001 just as it hit the top spot in the UK album charts after nearly a year-and-a-half on release. The American launch was accompanied by the compilations The EPs 1992-1994 and Lost Songs 1995-1998 (both 2001), which cherry-picked from Gray's first three albums and provided listeners with a few interesting rare tracks. In 2002 Gray released the long-awaited follow-up, A New Day At Midnight, which produced two strong singles but was met with lukewarm reviews. Following the tour to support the album, Gray went on hiatus for three years to recover from the exhaustion of his new-found fame.

We begin with 'Alibi', an interestingly downbeat choice for an opening track. Where 'Please Forgive Me' on White Ladder presented itself upfront with simple but confident piano, this crawls out of the speakers, feeling its way with much less confidence through the trees. But once the flute and pipes have cleared, Gray's distinctive voice swells in the centre of the mix and the whole track comes alive. As with much of his work, the lyrics are a little hard to understand, either in their meaning or Gray's delivery. But one cannot fail to be taken in by his performance.

This continues on 'The One I Love', the first and most successful single. This is the archetypal pop song: lyrics which are to the point yet strangely meaningful; simple yet distinctive melody; and an appealing sense of warmth at the heart of it all. Despite ticking all the singer-songwriter boxes, this is far from boring. The lyrics may be that of a love song, but Gray has a knack for slipping in the odd interesting image that you don't notice first time round. Lines like Perfect summer's night/ Not a windy breeze/ Just the bullets whispering gentle/ Amongst the new green leaves gel seamlessly while making the song surprisingly dark. Add in some good jangly guitar in the third verse and you have a very strong single indeed.

'Lately' calms the mood again, retaining the guitar but in a more whistful capacity. Gray once again rises to the challenge of a wide vocal range, soaring on the high notes with barely a hint of strain. The melody dances over the guitar and mouth organ with a light-hearted vigour, and the lyrics are unobtrusive without ever becoming bland. This is classic easy-listening fare, managing to be distinctive without being overpowered, and it's a very good piece of mood music.

The mood darkens down somewhat on 'Nos De Cariad', whose title is Welsh for "goodnight sweetheart". But rather than being the sweet lullaby we expect, this is far more dolorous and portentous. Gray croons Go to sleep my one true love as if he is fearful that the world will end. This dark tone is strongly reflected in the final verse:

The sun above the cotton grass
Is sinking down like lead
The seagulls know the truth of it
And scream it overhead
Hold on to St. Christopher
The sky is murderous red
Go to sleep my one true love
Our glory lies ahead

Such verses read like a macabre folk poem, so the fact that they are set against a relatively bright tone and major key is both a jarring and pleasant surprise. The lyrics wash over you, you absorb the imagery and start to warm to the story therein even as the darkness unfolds.

'Slow Motion' is the first of three truly outstanding tracks on here. The opening seconds set the tone for the album with their long, sparse and echoey chords. The opening verse is simple repetition, and yet the words seem to say so much. Then the percussion kicks in like a series of bizarrely sycopatic clocks and the song settles into a wonderful eulogy about the passing of a loved one. Gray watches a friend die in front of him, his dark world dissolves with him and all that is left is beauty. It's a simple but powerful message, delivered through some yearning long notes held brilliantly by Gray.

'From Here You Can Almost See The Sea' is equally fantastic, but in a completely different way. On the surface this is a very pleasant, cheery song about friendship and the brighter side of life. But if you dig a little deeper and really listen to the lyrics, you discover an eerie undercurrent to all this seaside cheer. The chord progression in the 'chorus', with the strange but beautiful minor chord, lifts this above so much romantic singer-songwriter dross. The lyrics are also cryptic, marrying a bright tone with odd and creepy imagery, e.g. The water's so cold it makes your bones ache. Throughout Gray is on fine form both on guitar and on vocals, and the middle eights which crop up twice are simply joyous.

'Ain't No Love' is probably the best song on the album. After some tinkly chords and playground sampling, the piano comes in to give us some grounding for this fast-moving, fast-thinking love song. Gray proves himself once again to be a master of ambiguity, serving up a set of lyrics which simultaneously paint pictures of a healthy relationship and of a lonely, broken man: This ain't no love that's guiding me either means that he does not love the girl, or that such a word is no longer adequate in describing how deeply he cares for her. The lyrics trip off Gray's tongue and into our ears at such a relentless pace that it will take several listens to absorb everything. Lines like Tomorrow girl I'll buy you chips/ A lollipop to stain your lips/ And it'll all be right as rain fit seamlessly around the bittersweet melody, and the result is something truly wonderful.

What a shame, then, that 'Hospital Food' should be such a let-down. This is the second single from the album and it deserves a lot of the bad press it got. Whereas elsewhere on the album Gray has let the lyrics dominate and fitted the music around them, here it is the other way around. That in itself is no bad thing, but when Gray has demonstrated that he is a great lyricist first and foremost, it makes no sense to bury his musings under a bland three-chord pop song. Had he focussed less on producing all the various synthesiser parts, this would have been a lot better.

Thankfully, the closing tracks more than make up for this little wobble. Both are very long - 6:45 and 5:05 respectfully - but they earn the right to go on this long by constantly delivering quality. 'Now And Always' has a great beginning in which the percussion is pushed to the back and the piano is muffled, allowing Gray's voice to dominate once again. By the time you reach this point on the album, you would think that he can't offer anything new beyond another vocal workout. But he surprises us with some well-timed double-tracked harmonies, coupled with pure production and a great fade-out. 'Disappearing World' is more sober, but no less charming in a glacial kind of way. Once again the music is kept simple but effective, with the piano chords creating a rolling, looping melody over which the vocals can flow. There is a minimalist beauty to this, but unlike other minimalists like Sigur Ros this is never cold, at least not overbearingly. It's a perfect way to end the album, being downbeat yet hopeful.

Life In Slow Motion is easily David Gray's best album. Every song on here - with one small exception - is expertly crafted with lyrics which are packed with meaning and beauty. And the cohesion between them, the sense of something holistic, is far stronger on here than it is on either White Ladder or A New Day At Midnight. This is an album about ambivalence; the musical sense is one of pleasant contentment, but the words set to the music are surprisingly eerie. This allows the album to be enjoyed as easy-listening background noise, but it also rewards the listener if they wish to really concentrate on the songs and find something deeper in them. An understated masterpiece from a very underated musician.

4.20 out 0f 5

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Top 100 Albums - #9: The Division Bell (1994)

At number 9 on our chart is The Division Bell, the final album by art rockers Pink Floyd and their sixth of eight entries.
After the release of A Momentary Lapse Of Reason (1987, #62), the three surviving members of Pink Floyd went on a world tour to re-establish their reputation. This tour, the first since The Wall Tour in 1980-81, saw the band competing with Roger Waters for arena space, as Waters struggled to promote his second solo album, Radio K.A.O.S. (1987). Following the release of the live album Delicate Sound Of Thunder (1988), the Floyd took the remainder of the 1980s off, only regrouping to participate in the trans-America motor race La Carrera Panamericana, and to record instrumentals for the film of the same name. An accident during the race - which left both David Gilmour and manager Steve O'Rourke badly injured - helped to convince the band to record again. As Waters' third (and best) solo album, Amused To Death (1992), brought him back into the public eye, Messrs. Gilmour, Mason and Wright once more returned to the studio for what would be their last album.

The Division Bell begins with 'Cluster One', a 6-minute instrumental track. Like 'Sounds Of Life' off the previous album, this crackles and creeps its way into the mix, emerging from the musical equivalent of your peripheral vision. The mood, however, is very different. While 'Sounds Of Life' was ominous and brooding, and quite unsure of itself, the overwhelming mood of 'Cluster One' is contentment, being at peace with oneself without being self-satisfied. This sense of contentment is beautifully conveyed by a series of sweet and languid chords from Gilmour's guitar, complimented by Rick Wright's simple but effortless touches on the keyboards. While not being a masterpiece, it's the perfect scene-setter for the album as a whole, as well as standing entirely on its own two feet.

Having broken you in gently, the next track may come as a surprise. 'What Do You Want From Me' finds Gilmour in anger mode - or at least midly irate, for this is much closer to 'The Dogs Of War' off Momentary Lapse than 'Young Lust' from The Wall (1979, #14). This song is a double-edged sword, being on the one hand about a man's naive desire to make the impossible happen for his love, and on the other hand being an angry outburst at the demands of such a woman. The suppressed rage which simmers throughout this piece is matched elegantly by the great guitar parts, while the backing vocals of Sam Brown steadily build the tension before the title crests at the end of the chorus. It's a very well-proportioned track, with no part overstaying its welcome.

'Poles Apart', meanwhile, can best be described as a mild disappointment. It's not appalling by any possible stretch of the imagination - it just feels too downbeat and obvious to be a proper Floyd song. The subject matter, namely Syd and Roger - has been explored before in better and more subtle ways, the former on most of Wish You Were Here, the latter to a limited extent on Momentary Lapse. Gilmour's lyrics are drawn out and feel a bit lost amid the long, slow instrumental section in the middle of the track.

No matter, though, for 'Marooned' is on hand to restore both the album's balance and its quality. This is a gorgeous instrumental which encapsulates the mood of the album effortlessly. After a few teasing seconds, Gilmour's Stratocaster begins ringing out those long yearning chords that transport you to the shore of your own desert island. Gilmour's delicate, immaculate playing gives every note a bittersweet beauty which is hard to pin down into words but which is just to die for. Throughout Wright is on hand on keyboards, tying Gilmour's heartfelt wailings down through a series of chords which are both simple and sublime. And unlike on Echoes (2001, #31), where the track only runs to 2:03 before fading out, here this great track is presently completely unexpurgated, allowing you to bathe in its fragile beauty without a care in the world.

One work of genius is gently followed by another. 'A Great Day For Freedom' is the shortest track on the album, weighing in at only 4:18, but don't think it's a lightweight. The lyrics, as ever with the Floyd, are ambiguous: On the day the wall came down/ The ship of fools had finally run aground refers both to the fall of the Berlin Wall and to the band's relationship with Waters (through Gilmour has denied this interpretation, it's certainly a plausible way to read it).¹ Like much of the first half of the album, this track has a great sense of sadness and mourning at its centre, a feeling of doubt about the present coupled with some kind of contentment about the future. It's a strange combination of feelings, but Gilmour is not flustered, stretching his vocal range to bring out the most in the way of emotion. This is the ultimate Floyd grower.

'Wearing The Inside Out' is an interesting piece, being the first track on which Wright sings lead vocals since 'Time' from The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973, #23). The first thing that anyone will notice is that his voice hasn't aged nearly as well as Gilmour's; where Gilmour can still sail the high registers with an ethereal grace, Wright's is ragged and breaking. In a way, however, this helps the track and the album as a whole, bringing an understated grace into the mix to dismiss any accusations that the latter-day Floyd are all big sounds and no substance. Wright's voice whispers across the soundscape created by his keyboards, forcing you to listen intently but rewarding you at almost every turn.

Up until this point, one criticism which could be laid against this Pink Floyd record is the lack of a knock-out single. But these accusations are safely laid to rest with 'Take It Back'. While the term 'knock-out' is hardly appropriate for the long and graceful introduction, once Mason begins to pound the snare you're certain that you have a hit on your hands. Having previously addressed the Berlin Wall and a decaying relationship, Gilmour now turns his attention to the environment, delivering a great set of lyrics which depict a relationship between Man and Mother Nature, a relationship of abuse and neglect which will eventually lead Nature to take it back someday. Not only is Gilmour in fine voice, but his guitar work is superb, combining a jangly solo with a razor-sharp backing part. Mason also appears to have come out of his shell, providing some of his classic tom-tom fills which made the band's earlier records just that little bit more interesting. A great track if ever there was one.

'Coming Back To Life' interpolates out of the previous track, beginning with a graceful, shimmering C-chord from Wright. But once again the song belongs to Gilmour, as he provides yet another sweet solo which lifts the spirits and warms the heart. It's a song of redemption and renewal, in both the band's life and in Gilmour's, through his marriage to Polly Samson during the Pulse tour. Mason's drumming provides a steady, contemplative beat over which Gilmour can serenade and thank his lover, allowing you to simply sit back and enjoy the show.

Having jumped heavily into the personal on the previous track, 'Keep Talking' brings us back to the bigger picture and the album's central themes of communication and relationships. Once again it's a slow starter, taking its time to build through various interwoven riffs and tape loops. Eventually Stephen Hawking comes in and begins the 'lyrics' through segments culled from his BT adverts in the 1980s. But soon all product placement is pushed aside when Gilmour thunders into view. Having led us in slowly, his lyrics and delivery steadily become more heady and claustrophobic, dragging you back to the paranoid centre of the band under Waters. This is a fantastic piece, an honest and genuine song about the desperation of being alone and the human desire for contact (no wonder this album has been nicknamed the 'anti-Wall').² The band are playing meticulously tight but there is still plenty of room for flair, for both Mason and Wright. And at the end of the final desperate chorus, Gilmour straps on his talkbox and beats Peter Frampton at his own game (see my review of Frampton Comes Alive! (1976, #66). Great stuff.

Of all the songs on The Division Bell, 'Lost For Words' is the most obvious allegory to the band's relationship with Roger. For all Gilmour's denials and ambiguities, the lyrics are among the clearest on the album in terms of the parallels they draw. Musically, it begins liltingly, with Gilmour switching to a great-sounding acoustic, and Mason demonstrating that drumming can be an understated art as well as an overstated one. But the second the lyrics come in, the little grey cells click into action. No-one can fail to spot the clues in the final verses:

Can you see your days blighted by darkness?
Is it true you beat your fists on the floor?
Stuck in a world of isolation
While the ivy grows over the door

So I open the door to my enemies
And I ask could we wipe the slate clean
But they tell me to please go and fuck myself
You know you just can't win

Even if you don't buy the resemblance, this is still a charming song which once again finds the three remaining members in solid form and with little to prove.

The album concludes with 'High Hopes', which arrives to the sound of church bells and bees and signals the final departure of Pink Floyd. Wright's poignant piano perfectly counterpoints the tolling bell, creating a melancholy mood which descends over the whole experience. But rather than being a simple song of doom and gloom, this finds the Floyd reflecting on all that has passed in nearly 30 years in the music business. And while they may conclude that the grass was greener and the light was brighter, there is never any sign of them falling apart at the seams; they still sound as immaculate as they did all those years ago, an observation which is both a relief and a cause for sadness. Gilmour's delivery and playing are absolutely first-rate, infecting every note with a breathy wisdom and bittersweet weariness which encapsulate the band so well. It's the best possible eulogy to the greatest rock band of them all, and as the band retreat into the ether, one cannot help but miss them.

While popular with the fans, The Division Bell was slated upon its release, with critics describing it as tired and formulaic. Tom Graves of Rolling Stone remarked that "the album... gives off the uncomfortable whiff of middle-age... Gilmour... seems bored or dispirited."³ Once again, they couldn't be more wrong. This album sees the renewal of the spirit of Pink Floyd that was somewhat tarnished on the previous album. While Momentary Lapse had to compete with Waters and prove that the band could carry on, this is more laid-back, more content and more immaculate as a result. While Gilmour's lyrics will never match the savagery of Waters', here he has crafted some beautiful sets of verse, tackling subjects with a subtlety and artistic flair which is the very essence of his musicianship. The album achieves that rare thing of being both tightly focussed and relaxed with itself, allowing the songs' quality to come through without fear of being rushed. It's a beautiful, ethereal piece of work, requiring a great deal of patience on first listen, but thoroughly rewarding in the end.

4.18 out of 5

¹ G. Fuller, 'The Color of Floyd', Accessed on July 6 2009.
² 'Pink Floyd: After Roger Waters', Accessed on July 6 2009.
³ Tom Graves, 'Pink Floyd: The Division Bell' (June 16 1994), on July 6 2009.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Top 100 Albums - #10: The Boatman's Call (1997)

Kicking off the Top 10 is The Boatman's Call, the fourth and final entry by post-punk icons Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds.The 1990s were a good time for The Bad Seeds, as they produced a string of albums which altered their raucous 1980s sound whilst still receiving critical acclaim. The Good Son (1990, #40), a retelling of the Parable of the Prodigal Son from the elder son's point of view, introduced a sense of grandeur to the band, which allowed them to craft more ambitious and complex material while never seeming overpowering. The follow-ups, Henry's Dream (1992) and Let Love In (1994), saw Cave starting to open himself up a little more, creating beautiful if ironic love songs like 'Straight To You' to counterbalance the anarchic live feel of The Bad Seeds present on such anthems as 'Red Right Hand'. Murder Ballads (1996) saw Cave stepping out still further, confronting death and violence head on instead of merely tiptoeing subtly around them; his duets with PJ Harvey and Kylie Minogue on the album are rooted in his great mix of blood-drenched darkness and black humour. With each of these albums receiving acclaim, and in the case of Murder Ballads major awards, the band were perfectly poised to deliver their masterpiece.

We open with an absolute gem of a song. 'Into My Arms' opens with a simple, mournful part on the piano, and then Cave comes in with his distinctive sunken baritone. It's an incredibly tender love song, about an atheist who falls in love with a Christian, and whose relationship with her leads him to question both her faith and his lack of faith. Throughout his career Cave has created some very spiritual music, but this is one of his most spiritually honest songs, dealing with themes of doubt and unbelief in a subtle and gentle manner which most Christian songwriters could not begin to comprehend. By setting up someone he dearly loves as the protagonist, rather than the listener, he avoids being false or preachy, and by keeping the production and instrumentation simple it feels like an honest one-to-one confession. It's a truly wonderful piece of work.

'Lime-Tree Arbour' retains the simplicity of the piano while bringing in the drums and bass. On the former, Thomas Wylder provides some simple brushwork which anchors the piece, never doing more than it needs to and thus giving the space for Cave, on both vocals and Hammond organ. Mick Harvey's part on the latter is to play off Wylder, providing a slightly smoky, jazzy flavour to liven up a straightforwardly 4/4 song. Cave's lyrics are simple and personal; he sings about his love without feeling the need for complex imagery or bitter irony, as he has so often done in the past.

'People Ain't No Good', thanks partly to its use in Shrek 2 (2004), has become the ultimate down-and-out song. The opening lines - People just ain't no good/ I think that's well understood - strike straight to the heart of anyone who has lost faith in humanity, either through a series of alienating encounters or simply through a bad day at the office. It's more than just a blues song with gentle piano, however. It's a love song in which the love quickly goes out of the marriage and thus out of the world around them; where once the trees stood with blossoms now they are barren and bare. Maybe Cave is being ironic even here. In describing how love quickly fades in a world without trust or optimism, he is offering up said trust and optimism as the way things should be, or - more bravely - how they really are. It's another wonderful song which marries simple melodies with ornate lyrics to create something very good indeed.

'Brompton Oratory' slowly lifts its head from under muffled production, turning into a sweet but subdued piece about the nature of religion. Cave's Everyman slowly shuffles into the overbearing church on Pentecost and confronts a dichotomy on the nature of God's love. On the one hand, from the second verse, he is clearly alienated from God's love in the practices of Christianity and the Church:

The reading is from Luke 24
Where Christ returned to his loved ones
I look at the stone Apostles
Think that it's all right for some

And yet, he goes on, the woman he loves is so perfect that she may just be proof of God's existence, and that The Almighty means him well. Cave is clearly being ironic when he claims that neither God nor the Devil could do the job that you did, baby/ Of bringing me to my knees. It's more subtle even than the last three numbers, but still very warming.

'There Is A Kingdom' keeps the focus firmly on Christ and the link between heavenly and earthly love. Its central message and motif is Cave comparing his love for his earthly partner to all the magical feats of nature and life, concluding that God must be behind all of them in some way, shape or form. He begins by describing God as a King who lives both without and within, and ends by finally confessing that There is a King/ And he is everything. Skeptics may baulk at such language or beliefs, but there's no denying that this song is tender, personal and introspective without being morbidly so, for any of those three characteristics. Much like Cave's work on the follow-up, No More Shall We Part (2001, #19), it's a song about spiritual and religious assurance, and above all the instrinsic link between faith and love (whether religious faith or otherwise).

'(Are You) The One That I've Been Waiting For?', however, sees some of that assurance turned to doubt. This song is, from one angle, about Cave's relationship with PJ Harvey around the recording of Murder Ballads. It's filled with some wonderful lines which say so little and yet mean so much. In the third verse Cave remarks: Outside my window the world has gone to war. This is a man who sees the chaos of the world which he is struggling to fight or survive in, and seeks the love of a woman to protect and strengthen him in his hour of need. The Biblical themes are still there, especially in the last first which paraphrases the gospels, so that you slowly begin to understanding how much Cave's love for God and love for people is intertwined. Harvey's guitar parts really lift this piece, adding fibre to the slow jazzy brushwork of Wylder and creating a more brooding mood at the start.

'Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere?' is about another woman in Cave's life: Viviane Carneiro, mother of his son Luke. The mood remains minimalist, the verse structure fixed, and the delivery sombre, but there are some new things on offer. Harvey's acoustic work injects into the mix an interesting choice of major chords, to offset or counterpoint Cave's melancholy melody, both on piano and vocals. This is a boon considering this is the longest track on here, and by the end it feels like it too. That said, it's not as drawn out as 'Death Is Not The End' on the previous album, a Dylan cover which seemed to go on for years. The production is still sparse, as though he is whispering across a desert plain at sunset. And while the lyrics are less accessible than they were in the first half, by the time you reach the end you'll have been sucked into it this song like all the rest.

'West Country Girl', another song about PJ Harvey, is the first time the Bad Seeds drop the ball on this album. It's not terrible, by any stretch of the imagination, but the band feel less sure of themselves, drifting too far towards English folk in the intro which jars with their American roots. Cave's delivery is as clear as before, but he is wrestling with the intrusive percussion here and as a result his lyrics jar at the crucial moments. There are times when you wish that Martyn P. Casey would just lay off the bass and let the treble elements guide the song.

'Black Hair' is much better, combining the more English sound of a piano accordion (played by Warren Ellis) with the brooding bass organ sounds from Harvey. Cave drifts both above and amidst these two sounds, disposing with strict metre until the song's denouement. It's almost a spoken word performance, a piece of prose rather than lyrical poetry, save only for the repetition of the title. Cave wrings all that he can out of the image, and the song wraps up just when you think he has exhausted every metaphor and adjective he has. It's another gorgeously understated piece which knows just how to leave you wanting more.

'Idiot Prayer' is the last truly great song on this album. Ellis switches to plucking the strings of his violin while Wylder switches from brushes to sticks and steadily thumps his snare to drive this song on. It's more bittersweet than the last few songs, with Cave jumping between earthly love and snide comments on life after death: Is heaven just for victims, dear/ Where only those in pain go?/ Well it takes two to tango. Like a lot of the best rock songs, the right instruments are introduced at just the right time and nothing is allowed to overstay its welcome. The Hammond organ which ripples through the second half would look out of place in the first, and Cave knows it. Likewise, Ellis' violin gradually fades from view, before rising once again in the last minute to give a delicate and tragic farewell serenade to his love. Everything about this song is just right.

'Far From Me' brings Casey's bass back to the fore, with both this and the drums settling up a jazz rhythm to which Cave and Ellis can respond. The latter provides some jagged work on the bow to compliment the shimmering organ; the former does what he does best, delivering sorrowful lines of immense beauty with clear enunciation and a deep sense of yearning. It's probably the saddest song on here, being as it is about distance, departure and the pain that comes from missing someone. It's also more exhausting than a lot of the other songs; it may be over 5 minutes long, but by this stage the wearily repetitive structure may be starting to wear a little thin. Nevertheless, this is a very good song.

We finish with 'Green Eyes', which is a pity since it spoils the mood in so many ways. Firstly, there is the profanity of lines like This useless old fucker/ And his twinkling cunt. There's nothing wrong with profanity in songs in general, so long as it is used to convey meaning. Here there is meaning but it's out of kiltre with the sombre, funeral mood of the other tracks. Secondly, there is the production, in particular the double-tracking of Cave's vocals. The off-setting of a high- and low-register part leaves you confused over which one to listen to first, and the drawn-out higher part soon gets very annoying. It's a shame to finish on a downer, albeit not a totally disastrous one.

Nick Cave albums are not normally the place to come to if you want comfort, contentment or peace of mind. But on The Boatman's Call, we surprisingly get all of these things, albeit in ways which we don't suspect. Within Cave's lyrics and the songs built around them, there still remains the deep-seated religious doubt, obsession with darkness and cruel interest in violence which has marked all of Cave's best and most interesting work. But one does not have to look much further, or deeper, to find deep-seated themes of redemption, love and faith rewarded. Insofar as Cave has ever been an optimist, it's his most optimistic record, combining the reassurance and happiness that faith can bring with a renewed connection with humanity. It's not, however, an advertisement for contentment, certainly not in the way that the follow-up could be construed to be; simply because there is less in the way of musical anarchy, as on 'The Curse Of Millhaven' from Murder Ballads, does not mean that Cave is satisfied. What The Boatman's Call is, at its heart, is a deeply emotional yet highly sombre exploration of the relationship between God and Man, told through pure poetry and wonderfully minimalist music. It is undoubtedly Cave's masterpiece, and a masterpiece of the album form itself.

4.17 out of 5

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Top 100 Albums - #11: Hats (1989)

Just missing out on the Top 10 is Hats, the only entry from Scottish band The Blue Nile.
The Blue Nile's career began almost by accident. Paul Buchanan (vocals, guitar) and Robert Bell (bass) had been members of Night By Night, who had a cult following in Glasgow but never secured a record deal. After graduating from Glasgow University in the late-1970s, Buchanan and Bell met Paul Joseph Moore (keyboards) who shared their intrest in music. The trio began writing and formed Peppermint Records, releasing the single 'I Love This Life' in 1981. In 1983, the band came to the attention of local hi-fi company Linn Electronics, who wanted a band to record music that would demonstrate the sonic range of the company's wares. The result was A Walk Across The Rooftops (1984), which sold modestly but garnered rave reviews. Following the success of singles 'Stay' and 'Tinseltown In The Rain' in Europe, the band spent the next four-and-a-half years writing, during which time an entire album's worth of material was scrapped.

Hats opens, very gingerly, with 'Over The Hillside'. The opening few seconds sees the perfect layering of instruments, beginning with the drum machine, then the shimmering keyboards and finally the benign strum of the Fender. Then the band's best instrument, Buchanan, comes in. His voice is quite astonishing, being earthy and understated, and yet yearning and ethereal; Buchanan is singing from the heart and yet is never willing to get caught up in himself. Like most of The Blue Nile's output, the lyrics are about love and relationships, particularly those moments which turn the most mundane things in life into something magical. It's a very soothing start.

'The Downtown Lights' gives the album its city setting. Even before the first verse starts, you find yourself walking down empty streets on empty nights, with barely a sound to disturb the experience. You are alone in the world, with only the streetlamps for company, and the feeling is one of complete contentment and peace. The lyrics, which see Buchanan pushing his range to the limit, depict a lover having doubts about his relationship with a woman (How I know you feel it?/ How do I know it's true?), and his reassurance through this strange sense of contentment that comes through walking in the city at night. The production is crisper than it is on A Walk Across The Rooftops, and while the song develops slowly you're carried with it, like a bird slowly soaring.

'Let's Go Out Tonight' continues the laid-back, contented feel, providing us with a slower tempo and some sweet chiming guitar work from Buchanan. The percussion section strikes that perfect balance between keeping the beat and having a presence; there's nothing flashy or remarkable, but it never feels like the rest of the song was simply imposed over a click track. Moore is much bigger on this number, with his keyboards providing the brassy counterpoint to the quieter sections, as well as the subtle undertones on grand piano once Buchanan's voice is warmed up. This song really demonstrates the central skill of The Blue Nile: they can write love songs which are heartfelt and resonate, but they never resort to sentimentality or overblown musical cliches to draw you in.

If you need any further proof of the band's pedigree, then look no further than 'Headlights On The Parade'. This is the central track, with respect to both the track listing and the album's message. If the album as a whole is an ode to the power of relationships and the brilliance of love, then this song is the manifestation of Buchanan's own, special love. He doesn't care about success, or money, or anything which the world defines as important: only love will survive and so that's all he does. The lyrics are simple but overpoweringly brilliant, combining heartfelt feeling with a subtle shrug of self-deprecation. This is also reflected in the music, with Moore's violin sounds working in the background to compliment the lyrics rather than overpower them, as they might on a Phil Collins track. Bell's bass is funky and gels beautifully with the electronic drum part, providing an enticing yet reticent rhythm. This is a magical, ethereal piece of work, a true work of musical art and personal devotion.

'From A Late Night Train' is the hardest track to like on here. The production is more distant and quieter, as on the previous album, meaning that you'll find yourself craning to listen if you're not locked into the sound. Otherwise, this is still a very pleasant song which again manages to put sweet images in your head; perhaps a child watching through the window on a long journey home, or (as the lyrics suggest) a lover leaving town after the end of a relationship. With its highly realistic trumpet sound, this is more mournful and sombre than anything else on here, but that's not a downside; it merely shows the band are serious about describing both the highs and lows of love as it really is.

With 'Seven A.M.' the band become more assertive. Where before Buchanan was content to sit back and muse on the nature of love, here he is actively questioning its existence in an increasingly busy and self-interested world. His vocal style is still frail and restrained, but the percussion is more intrusive and Moore's keyboard chords are sharper and more staccato. Our subject is frustrated; he loves a woman dearly, but both she and the world are unresponsive, and so Each time I fall for you/ It hurts me a little bit more. For all its more intrusive elements, this is still an arty song; there is no need for the band to prove their credentials by being visceral.

The albums winds up with 'Saturday Night', in which seemingly all the conflicts of love, lost and found, are temporarily resolved. The feel of this song is one of profound acceptance, both of one's lot in life and of the nature of life itself. There is a mature outlook towards life in general, but the sometimes childish nature of love is enough to dispel any dark clouds forming in one's mind. Don't be fooled, however, into thinking this is slushy pap. Quite the opposite. Buchanan's guitar chords are both languid and snazzy, popping up like the corners of a mouth turning up into a smile. Bell is again on hand to provide an interesting bass line and the whole song is profoundly satisfying.

The Blue Nile have shown throughout their career that they can write genuine songs about genuine life experiences, without any tedious moralising or dwelling on deeper meaning to the point of obsession. They are interested, in short, in the simple complexity of love, and in this respect Hats is their crowning achievement. People whose patience doesn't stretch beyond a 3-minute single will find this heavy-going, but for the rest of us this is an album which we can allow to unfold at our leisure. Being only 39 minutes long, it's not an exhausting experience, and you come away from every listen with your faith in life and love renewed. Every song on here is testimony to the human spirit and the power of compassion, something which is so often ignored or sneered at in contemporary music. Above all, Hats is the complete package with regards to musical craft: sweet, beautiful lyrics, spot-on production, ethereal musicianship and a heart and soul that is the stuff of dreams.

4.14 out of 5