I Love “Strangeways, Here We Come”

The final Smiths studio LP, and it’s pretty glorious. The preceding The Queen Is Dead gets all the attention, but Strangeways, Here We Come is anything but a letdown. It finds all members of the band stretching out a little and flexing their talents; there are some interesting guitar motifs from Johnny Marr that aren’t particularly traceable to the prior Smiths “sound,” and similarly Morrissey’s voice has gained in depth and richness through age and experience.

It’s thoroughly consistent and cohesive. At just 36 minutes, it never outstays its welcome but the songs are long and expansive enough to make their mark. The opening “A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours” is like a weird sort of melancholy ska, full of reverbed piano, while “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish” ratchets up the pop quotient with a slightly harder-edged flair.

“Death of a Disco Dancer” is the kind of dreamy, pseudo-psychedelic Nico-meets-Siouxsie and the Banshees (with a side order of Beatles’ White Album thrown in) epic that foreshadows some of Morrissey’s solo work, and does it marvellously well, with a particularly floating, airy vocal from the man himself. “Girlfriend in a Coma” is one of the most perfect two minutes in the entire Smiths catalogue, featuring all the elements that make a classic alternative pop single – a heart-stoppingly gorgeous melody married to an inventive, imaginative arrangement shining the spotlight on Marr’s deft guitar, with one of Morrissey’s most accessible, smooth vocals and witty, cuttingly humorous lyrics.

“Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” recalls the harder-edged pop sound of the preceding “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish,” but this time the melody is more immediately attractive. One of Morrissey’s most admirable talents was matching the syllabics of his lyrics supremely to the rhythms of Joyce and Rourke’s interplay and Marr’s jangly melodies; this particular song is a prime example of the skill. (See the “delayed/waylaid” and “detained/restrained” lines, for instance.) Vocally, Morrissey shines throughout this record – the clarity with which he sings “who said I lied, because I never?” is wonderful. Later on, on the acoustic delight “Unhappy Birthday,” which Johnny Marr later said was a direction he would have liked to have taken The Smiths in had they continued in band form, the vocal is a confident and assured croon that Morrissey would perfect in his solo career.

Perhaps the album’s most famous song, and arguably its centrepiece, is the bewitching and melodramatic “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me.” Reading the lyrics off the page, it’s hard not to be won over by Morrissey’s peerless treading of the fine line between wallowing and fabulously witty, sardonic self-deprecation, but when sung over the lush, sumptuous backing track, it attains a real majesty and dark, swirling beauty – and that’s one of the keys to The Smiths’ sublime success. This album version also wins out because the main body of the song doesn’t begin until after two minutes of scene-setting sound effects and piano chords.

Another cornerstone of the record is “Paint a Vulgar Picture,” another example of the effortless marriage of Morrissey’s lyric with the rhythmic pulse of Rourke and Joyce and guitar melody of Marr, a deceptively pretty tale of record company sycophancy and commercial woe. The brief “Death at One’s Elbow” is an injection of light-relief rockabilly, in the mould of “Vicar in a Tutu” from The Queen Is Dead, before the emotional closer “I Won’t Share You,” a melancholy, breathy, and loving lyric and vocal from Morrissey sung atop a simple and gorgeous autoharp line from Marr. As the final entry into the Smiths’ recorded legacy (it was not their absolute final recording, but their last song on their last album does lend it some degree of finality), it’s pretty hard to beat. A wonderfully emotional, apt closer.

The Smiths’ legacy is built on a run of fine records and memorable singles, all packaged together with the iconic Morrissey/Marr writing partnership, Morrissey’s lyrics and image, and what The Smiths meant to ’80s England and beyond. The Queen Is Dead is generally taken as the one Smiths record to own above all others, but there’s a case for all of them, including the majesty that is Strangeways, Here We Come. It’s up there with their most cohesive, consistent, and imaginative, and remains a wonderfully accessible delight.


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Art of the Day: John Wynne’s Saatchi installation

Untitled installation at London’s Saatchi Gallery.

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Informative, in-depth, objective, respectful – Graeme Thomson’s Kate Bush bio is one to treasure

I loved this book.

Graeme Thomson deserves a huge amount of credit for not only conducting some (useful and insightful) research and interviews with key people, but for sculpting his work into a biography that is immensely readable, well-crafted, and genuinely engrossing. It’s a biography that goes pleasingly in depth about Kate Bush’s life and career without mining for needless gossip or tabloid tittle-tattle; instead, it’s a respectful yet objective look at one of our most fascinating, original, and talented creative artists – a fine line difficult to navigate, but one Thomson pulls off remarkably well.

Anyone with a genuine knowledge of Kate Bush will already know that the tabloid reports of a strange, reclusive, “witchy” character are laughably inaccurate and that the truth is more that she acts just as any normal person would – she does her job, and then she lives her life in private. It just happens to be that her ‘job’ is making music, which of course leads to publicity, naturally. After reading the book, you really get a sense of Kate Bush the person – warm, genuine, determined, normal, but not without the odd endearing eccentricity – alongside Kate Bush the artist – hard-working, experimental, committed. Thomson’s insights are well-judged and more than once I felt he was articulating exactly how I felt about her and her music but hadn’t been able to properly express. His writing style is accessible but sophisticated, lending the book the air of a proper critical analysis as opposed to some previous biographies, which felt like extended magazine articles.

The book is excellent throughout but a few episodes are memorable, such as the new interviews with old schoolfriends of Bush from the 1970s shedding some light on her childhood. The information about the album sessions and recording processes is fascinating, and even the most ardent Kate Bush fan would acknowledge that the book reveals some interesting insights that perhaps they did not know before. The list of interviewees is impressive – producers, record company men, musicians, dancers, friends – and it seems the only people who did not grant new interviews were Kate’s family and her longest collaborator, Del Palmer, perhaps understandably. Even so, without the input of the closest in her circle, the book feels deep, rich, and well-rounded. This is the biography that someone of Kate Bush’s stature deserved, and it more than delivers. There will not be a better one. Quite possibly the best rock biography I have read to date – a triumph.

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Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles: Volume 1”

Last month, I finished reading the first (and to date, lone) volume of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles and found it an utterly engrossing read.

Anyone who listens to Dylan’s records will know him as a superior, talented wordsmith, but it was reading his prose – crackling, sparky, full of wit and sometimes surprising amounts of emotion – that finally really made me connect with him as a writer. His lyrics are evocative and poetic, as is his prose, but he has a real talent in the latter form for narrative exploration and character-developing.

Dylan wouldn’t do something so boring as a chronological account of his life and times. This doesn’t start in 1941 and end in 1961, with a promised second volume all about his ’60s heyday. Oh no. Instead, Dylan focuses on a few select periods of his life and career – his time spent performing in New York City before getting his record deal, his life in Woodstock with his family, but persecuted by the press and over-zealous fans, in the late ’60s, and his time in New Orleans in the late ’80s recording Oh Mercy with Daniel Lanois.

Each different time period is given due credit, due respect, and each one is made interesting and alive by the sheer power and accessibility of Dylan’s beautiful way with words.

I came away from this book feeling like I knew Dylan a little better, maybe understood his music a little better, and inspired to follow his example. As good as any rock star autobiography you’re likely to read.

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Laurie Anderson – “Homeland”

Review originally published at the Wears the Trousers site.

Anyone familiar with Laurie Anderson’s work will know that it is a strange brew, a blend of the cerebral, the darkly comic and the oddly beautiful. Homeland, her first new studio LP in almost a decade, delivers on all these fronts and more. Her most famous work, 1982’s Big Science, was a slim-line distillation of Anderson’s gargantuan performance art piece ‘United States Live’, and similarly Homeland acts as the audio document of a larger piece of the same name that she has been staging worldwide since 2007. More than many of her records, Homeland brings together the personal and political elements to Anderson’s work with particular seamlessness. Her trademarks – quirky non-sequiturs, deadpan spoken word, a fragile upper register, her alternately melancholy and dissonant violin accompaniment – are all here. But Homeland, co-produced by Anderson with husband Lou Reed and longtime collaborator Roma Baran, also possesses a uniquely modern edge.

A couple of songs here have grabbed all the headlines. “Only An Expert,” which begins with blasts of Reed’s electric guitar, develops into a weird spoken-word, techno-funk experiment complete with electronic squelches and loops. Anderson’s analysis of misplaced American faith is as off-kilter and amusing as her best work, but it’s certainly a track that, by virtue of its sheer peculiarity, will prove divisive. Similarly, the eleven-minute epic “Another Day In America” finds Anderson’s voice slowed down to appear as her male alter-ego Fenway Bergamot, her satirical authoritarian voice. Featuring some subtle guest vocals from Antony Hegarty near its climax, the song captures a real sense of impending desolation and very palpable uncertainty as Anderson (Bergamot) asks of the new America, “How do we start? How do we begin again?”

But don’t be fooled into thinking that the rest of the material is simply there for decoration. The heart of this record is composed of intense and haunting ambient music, with frequent use of Middle Eastern instrumentation, spare electronic flourishes and the alternation between Anderson’s distinctive high singing voice and her deadpan spoken delivery contributing to its overwhelming sense of conceptual cohesion. Songs like “My Right Eye,” with its gradually building electronic backing, and the largely voice/violin dialogue of “Thinking Of You” (the closest the album gets to ‘pretty’), recall Big Science, while opening number “Transitory Life” utilises rubbery basslines and the gripping, evocative sound of Tuvan throat singers, who are pitched somewhere between Tanya Tagaq’s work on Björk’s Medùlla and Kate Bush’s use of the Trio Bulgarka.

Much of Homeland is stark and sparse and often, as with “Strange Perfumes,” almost creepy and oppressive. But there is no denying the simple power and imagination of much of this material. “Dark Time In The Revolution” incorporates bagpipes and live drums, while “Beginning Of Memory” features the return of the Tuvan singers alongside screeching saxophone courtesy of John Zorn, before the album ends with the elegiac violin instrumental “Flow.” Thus, even if the listener does not necessarily pay close attention to the social and political commentary of Anderson’s lyrics, Homeland works equally well as a mood piece. It’s as evocative as a film score, and Anderson’s images (“It takes a long time for a mouse to realise he’s in a trap”; “Where does love go when love is gone? To what war-torn city?”) are involving and engrossing even if you don’t make the wider social and political connections.

That’s when you begin to understand the magnitude of Anderson’s achievement. Homeland does not flaunt its politics, nor does it exaggerate its personal, emotional qualities. Instead, it’s a much defter and more subtle work capable of simultaneously providing accessible entertainment and challenging the listener’s heart and head. Of course it will have its detractors who will declaim it as pretentious and, god forbid, “arty,” but the fact that Anderson is still putting out music that is intelligent, thought-provoking, sometimes intensely sad, often hilariously funny and bizarre, is a cause for celebration. Some might say that Anderson’s work loses some impact outside the performance context, but Homeland goes a long way to disproving that theory. This is definitely one to spend some quality time with.

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