Monthly Archives: October 2016
My Spin on Masterworks: 19 of 25
Young Turks, 2009
xx works a strange magic in making the mundane sound beautiful. It’s a shapely and beguiling début from one of the most surprising success stories of modern British music, and an album on which space is prioritised as much as sound to convey the intimacy that can be attained by two people. The dusky atmospheres of the xx’s songs are immaculately rendered thanks to Jamie Smith’s production, and each instrument possesses a signature style that seldom deviates across songs: cut-glass guitars dressed in reverb, warm and nagging bass lines, beats that coax and nudge rather than dominate. The end result is a work that is vague, hushed, and in many ways, so simple that it could appear flat and lifeless on paper. Even when the xx are at their most sonically lavish, the crux of their work is always plain – both musically and lyrically. And it’s this very plainness which makes xx such a quiet gem.
These songs are soft, lived-in, humble: love’s aches, pains and joys transmitted in short, simple exchanges. The charmingly succinct ‘VCR’ offers perhaps the best distillation of the xx’s appeal more than any other song. Its lyrics are nothing to marvel at, but the unremarkable nature of these phrases helps them to register as genuine. “I think we’re superstars,” Romy Madley Croft hums, accompanied by plinking xylophone. “You say you think we are the best thing.” As is the case throughout xx, there is nothing superfluous present: no overreaching poetry or sweeping gestures; just the acknowledgement of companionship and contentment. In its short span, xx rolls through the highs and lows of intimacy: those unparalleled feelings of warmth and security, as well as the sour fallout and lingering hurt.
Each song coheres around a you-me dynamic. “They” are never once mentioned, and the back-and-forth between Croft and Oliver Sim’s “you” and “I” gives xx its quiet, under-the-sheets intensity. It’s a two-hander trick that is enrapturing to follow as the vocalists divert and then dovetail, as on the excellent ‘Crystalised’, with its mesmeric undertow and a central hook composed of sighs. The singers generally trade verses before merging together for yearning choruses, and ‘Islands’ employs this trend with even lusher results, its heart-on-sleeve admissions of infatuation set to verses that bump and flutter like stirred hearts. The sentiment that “I am yours now / So now I don’t ever have to leave” taps into the hot cocoon of a relationship in bloom, delivered with wide-eyed naivety that is subsequently offset by the whispered pangs of ‘Heart Skipped a Beat’. In these subtle shifts in mood, the xx demonstrate a sharp awareness of when to accentuate the innocence or weariness of their music, so that they sound by turns awkward and wise.
It is intriguing that neither singer is talented in a conventional sense. Croft and Sim both possess pleasant voices, but neither is particularly dexterous or adventurous (at least not in this collection) with their range or performance. Yet this is not a bad thing, and is positively essential to the nature of xx. Suiting their plain lyrics, Croft and Sim perform with little pizazz, and it’s in their unpolished performances that one can hear their longstanding chemistry with one another. When the singers join to form a helix, their closeness burns above and beyond the limitations of their voices, giving these songs a sense of real attachment that is impossible to fake. At the record’s centre, each singer takes a solo outing, and the relative lack of dialogue between the two yields captivating results. Sim’s ‘Fantasy’ resembles an eerie fog that builds into a claustrophobic, droning second half, which is balmed by Croft’s gorgeous ‘Shelter’. It’s hard to pick standouts from an album of such consistency, but ‘Shelter’ makes a strong case to rank as xx’s highpoint. Its lovely, lonely guitar motif is matched by what is possibly the band’s most vulnerable moment: “Maybe I had said / Something that was wrong / Can I make it better / With the lights turned on?”
Whereas the singers provide xx with its emotional push-and-pull, Smith is the spine of the group, taking the private entreaties of his bandmates and packaging them with grace. His sparse beats and crisp production work point towards the club, but he strips back his influences to suit more reflective spaces. While drawing on elements from hip-hop and R&B, the xx’s songs are confined to insular settings: bedrooms and night buses, lit in the glow of laptop screens and desk lamps. ‘Basic Space’ pares down a skipping rhythm into its most skeletal form to fit the song’s glacial sheen, while ‘Infinity’ is given an added tension with the brittle crack of percussion that cuts through Croft and Sim’s ominous duet. It’s harder to gauge the input of fourth member Baria Qureshi, who was ousted from the band in shady circumstances soon after xx’s release. However, her contributions can be heard if one listens carefully; present in the additional layers of guitars and keys that occasionally flesh out the whole, and which were notably absent during the even more minimalist Coexist.
Although it references many of the prickly truths of relationships, xx never digs deeply into complex topics. The delicacy and transparency of the xx’s songwriting can’t hope to cover everything, but nor does the band pretend to. xx is an album of simple promises, private dilemmas, repressed hurt and tenderness, and it touches on these themes gently and with just the right level of mystery. The wide-eyed promises of ‘Stars’ are beautifully arresting in their bare-bones form. “Dear, it’s fine / So fine by me / Because we can give it time / So much time” croon both vocalists, closing the album on a note of the softest optimism. Like the ten songs that precede it, ‘Stars’ hints at so much more than what is offered on the surface. The simple components – single repeated notes, stark beats and plain words – are simultaneously basic and open-ended, glimpsing at a larger world from within its own bubble.
In some ways, extended forays into the xx’s world can become a little cloying. The decent but meandering Coexist showed that the group’s sound can be spread a little thin, and there are definite limitations to xx itself. In terms of the group’s long-term progression, it’s difficult to imagine for how long such a simple aesthetic can be successfully mined, and their upcoming third album will answer this question one way or another. In some ways, however, the thirty-eight minutes of xx are enough; after-hours thoughts in which anxiety and tranquillity collide. For the jubilant side of nocturnal life, we have the luminous solo output of Smith as Jamie xx. But when it comes to the doubts, the awkward pauses, the uncertainty and breathing space, we have xx. Once one has sunk into its intimate atmospheres, it quickly turns into one of those special albums which becomes a companion: music which you’re keen to have close at hand for the wee hours, and those mingled feelings of longing and belonging.
My Spin on Masterworks: 18 of 25
Joy Division’s second – and final – album begins with a drum pattern from Stephen Morris that was inspired equally by tribal music and the taut psychedelia of Can. Each tom hit lands with additional resonance under Martin Hannett’s supervision, echoing into empty space that is then partly occupied by a stealthy, prowling bassline. Simultaneously, we are given a peek behind the curtains of background silence into a grotto of dissonant noise: a series of disorienting and jagged sounds that mirror chittering gunfire, scrambled radio transmissions, and orthodontic instruments. Up splutters a guitar that screams and grinds like a chainsaw; more liable to hotwire the nerves rather than it is to carry an earworm. Amid this brooding thundercloud of noise, Ian Curtis’ deep voice commands all, repeatedly instructing the listener that “this is the way, step inside”.
The song is ‘Atrocity Exhibition’; six minutes that lay the splintered groundwork for what is to come. The experience of some albums can be likened to embarking on a journey, but to listen to Closer is more like entering a cavern. Its atmosphere (described through the years in adjectives such as sepulchral, crepuscular, and funereal) is disturbingly uneasy; the sharp contours that characterised Unknown Pleasures are here left frayed and raw, retaining the utilitarian economy of that album’s cuts while becoming more sonically harsh. Its songs occasionally teeter on the brink of anxious cacophony, as with ‘Colony’ and ‘Twenty-Four Hours’, which shatter the cold static of Joy Division’s previous works and hint towards a much rawer type of distress. It is a demanding album to listen to; emotionally exhausting and deeply, deeply troubling. I can’t claim to have heard every album ever made, but of the fair amount that I have given time to, Closer is very possibly the darkest. And yet, in spite of the sheer weight of its bleakness, once one is ushered into ‘Atrocity Exhibition’, time and time again Closer proves itself to be nothing less than an utterly gripping and extraordinary work of art.
As will always be the case for posthumous releases, for better or worse, Closer will forever be inextricably associated with Curtis’ suicide, and indeed, the album is riddled with allusions to depression, medication, existential angst, physical and mental debilitation, and hints towards an oncoming ultimatum as Curtis wrestles with a choice between two forms of damnation (“heart and soul / One will burn”). The lyric sheet is very clearly drawn from a tortured place. And yet, baffling – and even callous – as it may seem in hindsight, Joy Division’s three other members recorded Closer apparently unaware of the sheer depths of darkness that their music – and Curtis’ lyrics – were plumbing. Indeed, dispatches from the studios reflect a state of business as usual, the atmosphere allegedly shifting between that of boredom and the joy of improvised jams. All accounts and photos reflect a seeming normality; Bernard Sumner has repeated ever since that the group never drew parallels between their creative work and Curtis’ own state of mind, and the few snaps of the band at the time evoke a looseness that matches Peter Hook’s signature smirk.
And somehow, due to some collision of extracurricular elements and the musicians’ pure talent, Joy Division achieved something incredible. There is a pent-up aggression and drive to these tracks that goes one further than the refined productions of Unknown Pleasures. There is a greater dynamism to the songs, which feature confident use of fresh effects and textures. Sumner’s icy, skittish synths weave new unease through ‘Isolation’ and the tomblike ‘Decades’, while the whole group rally their energies for the choppy snarl of ‘Colony’. Elsewhere, Hannett’s fascination with digital delay trickery gives the inexorable dread of ‘Heart and Soul’ a strangely glossy sheen, which provides a ghoulish counterpoint to Curtis’ croon: “Existence, well what does it matter? / I exist on the best terms I can / The past is now part of my future / The present is well out of hand”. For all their other properties, these are wonderfully sculpted gems of post-punk, crafted with poise, confidence, and a keenness to evolve.
Of course, what truly elevates Closer to its near-mythic status is the presence (and in a way, the absence) of Curtis himself. Vocally, he sounds as strong and commanding as he ever did in Joy Division’s short career, his voice conveying that thousand-yard stare and straining urgency that has since spawned so many pale imitations. Lyrically, his work is magnificent, but almost unbearable to annotate. It is folly to make bold claims about lyrics, especially when circumstantial facts have been blurred by myths, endless speculation, and contrasting accounts. History has been distorted, both by lack of focused knowledge during the making of Closer and the pains of hindsight. And yet, when combined, all songs on Closer make an overwhelming suggestion that Curtis’ thoughts were drawn inwards: these are songs that are near-impossible to remove from their context.
Consequently, there is an overwhelming temptation to restrict Closer to a single – and ostensibly clear – meaning: it gives unflinching insight into Curtis’ psyche during the last months of his life. It is not for one person to determine how close this is to the mark, but such notions are inextricably folded into Closer’s tissue. Curtis’ self-examinations are shuffled in among terrible glimpses of war, societal oppression, treatment of insanity, and the isolation of the individual, and the lines between topics are frequently thin. ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ mixes its J.G. Ballard influence with a look into lunatic asylums opened as spectacles for the public: “for entertainment they watch his body twist / Behind his eyes he says, ‘I still exist’”. In these words, Curtis somehow occupies the position of both ringmaster and victim, the lyrics and tense delivery echoing his twitchy, nervous dancing.
Curtis’ closing remark on the same track is “take my hand and I’ll show you what was and will be”. It’s both a chilling portent for Closer as a whole, and a direct link to the very first words uttered on Unknown Pleasures: “I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand”. Perhaps somewhere between the two, the burden of appalling knowledge fell on Curtis’ shoulders, as his epilepsy steadily worsened, the music industry’s exploits took their toll, and the pressures of marriage and fatherhood amid the tumult became too much to bear. ‘Passover’ is particularly painful in its reflection of these ideas, as Curtis reflects a “crisis [he] knew had to come” while struggling with a dilemma of damning his family by leaving, or personally torturing himself by remaining. The mood only thickens as the album continues towards its chilling climax. The bipolar tempos of ‘Twenty-Four Hours’ conjure a terrible dread that is then realised in the desolation of ‘The Eternal’. Adrift on waves of piano under unforgiving, iron-grey skies, it’s almost suffocating in its haunting beauty. Finally, ‘Decades’ is almost beyond description, Curtis surveying traumatised “young men with weight on their shoulders” who are marched into “Hell’s darker chambers”. All elements cohere into an indelible whole: the thin, brittle clatter of percussion, the ghostly synth that dominates the mix following the second verse, Curtis’ final, repeated question as he slips away from the song.
It is concerning to see Ian Curtis frequently held up as a paragon, and the countless stories and myths that surround his tragic life have occasionally seen him hallowed as a Tortured Artist. This is potentially a dangerous title to impose upon him. He was mortal, he was human, he was flawed. He had to endure terrible circumstances beyond his control, but his conscience was not clear of his own mistakes and issues. What Closer transmits is the painful extent to which he grappled with his demons, and was tragically was defeated by them. To listen to Closer is to be unnerved, haunted, and awed, both by Curtis’ chilling intonations, and the economical power of the group’s music. Joy Division had set a bold new template for guitar bands, and post-punk was to blossom in their wake, reshaping British rock – and ultimately “indie” – for decades to come. We have Unknown Pleasures plastered on countless T-shirts and Greatest Albums of All-Time lists, but Closer is a truly peerless record. Powerful, intense, and unflinching, it provides a glimpse into the darkest recesses of a mortal mind in nine tracks of enduring power. Long before “emo” and “goth” music were to become stereotypes, Closer fused terrible beauty with an inexorable dread, and what a truly staggering album it is.
This is the way, step inside.
My Spin on Masterworks: 17 of 25
Sound of Silver
It’s unfortunate that in many circles, the word “hipster” has become synonymous with “wanker”. The term carries with it disparaging undertones even when its use is actually perfectly dictionary-approved. In recent years, perceived qualities of snobbery, try-hard chic, and general aloofness have become attached to the hipster subculture, with anybody expressing a potentially conflicting opinion on pop culture now easily dismissed as a hipster contrarian. Although this is mostly done in good humour, thanks to popular stereotyping, the values most associated with hipsterdom are now widely viewed as conceited and po-faced.
James Murphy is one of the archetypal hipsters of 21st century music, considering that from afar, he ticks an almost-infuriating number of boxes on the hipster-spotter’s checklist. There’s the oft-cited vinyl worship and his staggering record collection of the kind you’d spot in Dust and Grooves. There’s his earnest adoration of 80s icons, the discography of comparatively lengthy tunes built on endless repetition, the singles with names like ‘Losing My Edge’ and ‘Yr City’s a Sucker’. Just for extra points, there’s the requisite facial fuzz, left-field side-projects (including Manhattan’s Subway Symphony), and the thousand-yard-stare that graces almost all of his press photos. He ostensibly makes such an easy target for kneejerk disdain that even Arcade Fire’s Win Butler has admitted to reacting as such before the two musicians finally collaborated, declaring that Murphy appears “kind of insufferable” until you get past that first impression.
In truth, Murphy is a smart player who is much less precious than he first appears. He fronted (and effectively acted as the face and mouthpiece of) LCD Soundsystem, the dance-punk collective who left a searing mark on the latter half of the noughties before bowing out with a legendary four-hour farewell show at Madison Square Garden in 2011. Several days into 2016, Murphy announced LCD Soundsystem would be reforming for shows as well as further records, to a mixed reception of delight and disappointment. Some hardcore fans have argued that this revival cheapens the emotional charge of the band’s original blowout, but ultimately, the return of one of the past decade’s most-loved acts is cause for celebration. As with Murphy himself, the band risked alienating fans with their stylistic tics (those arty band photos, that fetishised monochrome colour scheme, the blazers, the badges, the aviators), but look beyond these surface details, and their creative output is anything but aloof. In fact, it’s wonderfully easy to embrace: at their best, LCD Soundsystem sounded amicable, sensitive and ceaselessly self-effacing, while succeeding in joining the dots between the hot-blooded propulsion of a rock band and the crisp leanness of a dance outfit. They may be hipsters, but they’re categorically not wankers.
Although 2010’s This is Happening is arguably the most enjoyable of LCD Soundsystem’s three LPs, Sound of Silver is the real jewel in the band’s crown: a record that contains a perfect balance of the group’s strongest assets. LCD Soundsystem were (and they remain) very cool, but they’re also super goofy. They achieved greatness without sounding as though they were flailing for it. Theirs isn’t music of prissy perfectionism and frostiness, but excitable jams where fun and flavour are the primary objectives. Hence, for every demonstration of edgy swagger, they equally revelled in moments of self-aware silliness: the cowbell solos, the pithy quips, the ecstatic synth squiggles. The video for 2010’s ‘Drunk Girls’ features Murphy and bandmates Nancy Whang and Pat Mahoney being menaced by a bunch of pranksters pissing around in panda outfits, while documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits shows the band’s live attack as an ecstatic affair.
A true sense of enjoyment and love for the medium shines through the veneer of LCD Soundsystem’s music, and on Sound of Silver, the band’s trademark mingling of the cool and the ridiculous entwines with wonderful results. ‘North American Scum’ might pack a monster of a chorus, but Murphy’s wails are those of a wannabe rather than a bigwig, any traces of affectation undercut by hilarious yelps of “you wouldn’t touch us with a ten-foot pole” and “don’t blame the Canadians!” (The best pronunciation of “Canadians” you’ll hear on record, guaranteed.) These gleeful forays into big, dumb fun are the perfect foil to the gripping pulse of the instrumentation. ‘Watch the Tapes’ has Murphy yowling like a teenager over a sticky bass riff, concluding that “we all get a little drunk and then we act like apes” after four minutes of mostly nonsense. The album leans on these dafter moments to steady more ethereal passages elsewhere, such as the title track’s techno bliss-out, which is given room to breathe across seven luxurious minutes.
This wit is so crucial because the band’s musical smarts are almost intimidating in of themselves. Musically, Sound of Silver is immaculate, announcing itself from the off as a work of impressive nous; a collaboration of minds who have spent years coveting hidden treasures from decades past, before reworking their influences into an equally powerful original creation. The layering alone in ‘Get Innocuous!’ is wondrous to behold: one hundred seconds in, additional manual drums join the poppy snap of the analogue drum machine, and a wobbly keyboard motif slowly muscles its way higher in the mix. Even before the vocal sloganeering (“don’t it make you feel alive?”) has worked its repetitive magic, ‘Get Innocuous!’ has announced the record as one of supreme musical dexterity. (And the song is so awesome it’s kind of embarrassing for everybody else.)
But Sound of Silver wouldn’t be nearly as loveable as it is were it not for its big, soft heart, and at the album’s core, Murphy proves his chops for jerking tears as well as moving hips. ‘Someone Great’ conveys its vulnerability over a thick keyboard hook and a range of pinging melodies, as Murphy comes to terms with an ambiguous loss. Contextual details (is this the end of a relationship? A sudden departure? Death?) are left foggy as the singer hones in on the aftermath in a wash of muddled emotions. In lieu of outright heartbreak, the sadness is felt with stupefaction and subtle dislocation, grief registered like a puncture in an indifferent world of unceasing movement. “The coffee isn’t even bitter,” Murphy notes, “because what’s the difference?” Beyond this shattering personal distress, the world coldly carries on: “and it keeps coming, and it keeps coming, and it keeps coming…” ‘Someone Great’ has such lasting power because it offers an honest glimpse of mourning in modern times.
It’s outstanding, and the centrepiece that it forms with ‘All My Friends’ is what elevates Sound of Silver more than any other present quality. ‘All My Friends’ is the kind of song that words can’t really do justice to. Suffice to say, it’s a song with which LCD Soundsystem captured the essence of something huge; a sublime, universal bittersweetness in a beautiful treatise on aging, honing in on music, companionship, and the homes we find in the chaos. “I wouldn’t trade one stupid decision / For another five years of life,” goes one single line, as the song accelerates towards its finale. It’s music that isn’t just heard, it’s deeply felt. Just listen.
It might be too challenging for me to articulate the power of ‘All My Friends’, but pinning down the winning formula of its parent album is comparatively simple. Sound of Silver is the most winsome creation of a group who knew how to be cool, as well as when to embrace the ridiculous. These songs strafe between pithiness and sincerity, lovingly tipping a cap to heroes of the past without succumbing to slavish homage. It’s sexy and stupid, hilarious and heartbreaking, and thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end. Whether the reformed LCD Soundsystem can top Sound of Silver is yet to be seen, but it’s one hell of a high bar to clear.
My Spin on Masterworks: 16 of 25
In theory, complete and utter sincerity should seem desirable. Instead, it’s an uncomfortable proposition to shoulder, especially for poets and songwriters. When feelings are presented at their most naked, there’s nothing to hide behind: nothing artificial to lean into, no irony to break the tension. Heart-on-sleeve writing can be courageous purely in its existence, but it can all-too-easily collapse into the polar pitfalls of being either overly basic or overly elaborate. The words are expected to retain the intensity of original feeling without simply resembling slapdash stream-of-consciousness. Braving such territory in sung verse can be even more intimidating: everything hinges not only on the words themselves, but in the delivery thereof. Huge, heartfelt ballads are generally associated with ostentatious bluster, but at their core, they represent a tremendous gamble: with all chips on the table, every single line or couplet must hold its place in the chain, lest the whole thing break into pieces. If the material fails to convince at any point, the artist’s emotional integrity appears compromised; a disastrous result that stings all the more for the highly personal nature of the piece.
Partway through St. Vincent’s headline performance at Green Man Festival in 2015, Annie Clark gave a lengthy (and occasionally bewildering) speech, into which she smuggled the observation that “it’s so much braver to admit that you love something than to say that you hate it”. While the rest of her words are largely gone from memory (except for a hilarious gaff about Greggs “steak burgers”), that particular truism has continued to percolate in my mind. Transparent expressions of love put one in a vulnerable position. When it’s clear that you hold something dear, it can be hurtful for somebody else to refute it (and by extension, yourself). This applies when defending somebody else, and doubly so when standing by your own thoughts or creations.
Listening to his sole completed album, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Jeff Buckley couldn’t possibly have suffered from such concerns: throughout Grace, Buckley sings from the depths of his soul without so much as a flicker of self-doubt. Grace is not a record that sounds fragile (at least not in the same sense as For Emma, Forever Ago and its peers) but it is uncommonly intimate, the words poured straight from the heart with no discernible filter of irony or pretense. Even when revisiting past treasures such as ‘Corpus Christi Carol’ or Nina Simone’s ‘Lilac Wine’, Buckley fills their compositional vessels with an emotional charge that is entirely his own; his fervent croon making their well-worn sentiments new again. In no small part, this is down to his astonishing voice, blessed as he was with the kind of swooping range that so many troubadours dream of. Equally, by the time of Grace, Buckley had developed a precise control over his vocals, his fiery caterwauling tempered by finesse and timing. His feelings may sound raw, but his style was far from unpolished.
As is often the case for the reception of so many heart-on-sleeve songwriters (especially those with a taste for the theatrical), there are plenty of listeners who are turned off by Buckley’s style, but that’s not for his work’s lack of sincerity. Grace is an album so thoroughly open-chested that it is worthy of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the output of artists Buckley himself worshipped – Simone, Édith Piaf, Billie Holiday – as a work of pre-eminent emotional intensity. Its ten songs are sharply drawn from defiance, angst, and soul-baring declarations of love which verge on hallowing. Even listening to the album’s best-known song – the oft-celebrated cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ (which Buckley was actually drawn to after hearing John Cale’s own rendition) – proves a staggeringly intimate experience. Buckley and producer Andy Wallace present the song as unhurried, hushed, and spacious, with its few details rendered finely. The notes of Buckley’s guitar flicker like candles in the dark, his voice ascending from a dusty stool to scrape cathedral-sized heights. The emotion driving the song can be heard through every breath, and it never once sounds affected or disingenuous.
In his own songs, Buckley pulls off even the most impossible of sentiments thanks to the very same sincerity. “I never stepped on the cracks ’cause I thought I’d hurt my mother,” he sighs during ‘So Real’ – the kind of lyric that would attract adjectives such as “drippy” were it not for Buckley’s sheer commitment to the part. On the opus ‘Lover, You Should’ve Come Over’, he builds from “my kingdom for a kiss upon her shoulder” to “she’s the tear that hangs inside my soul forever”, without faltering once. Around these peaks and valleys of romantic ruin, Grace’s edges are darkened like singed parchment paper. The “white horses” of ‘Mojo Pin’ are a torch-song cousin to Elliott Smith’s ‘Needle in the Hay’ of the following year, whereas ‘Dream Brother’ is a warning in the face of a friend’s temptation to self-destruct.
Buckley naturally holds the spotlight throughout Grace, but his bandmates are pushed to miracles in their attempts to match him, and sweet Jesus, the sound is just blissful. Listening to ‘Last Goodbye’ is like sending your ears on a four-and-a-half minute trip to Heaven. His subject matter is as old as time, but Buckley wrings fresh pain from an end-of-the-line dialogue with cut-glass phrases, while surrounded by tiny musical gracenotes. “This is our last embrace,” he asserts, and one of Karl Berger’s most gorgeous string melodies sails in to dovetail with the impossibly sharp pang, Buckley’s stretching ever so slightly to ask “must I dream and always see your face?” It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, so tiny in the breadth of the full album, but the effect is matched time and time again. ‘Grace’ itself shifts from jangly beauty to an explosive kick against the eventual dying of the light; a notion that would of course prove to be devastatingly timely. And yet it transcends its context and still sounds spirited and full of promise two decades after Buckley’s death: the performances are full of vim and gusto, and that hair-raising crescendo is a potent demonstration of the electricity preserved in the fibres of the album.
It’s dispiriting that to this day, the vaults are still being pilfered by music executives hoping to squeeze more lucrative posthumous releases from Buckley’s slim catalogue of work. This year’s You & I is a disheartening example of offcuts and demos cobbled together for the sake of capital at the cost of mystique. While arguably valid as insights into Buckley’s creative trajectory, many of the works dredged up following his death (aside from the more rounded productions lining Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk) show the artist at his most inconsistent, before he was able to fully realise the power of each recording. As such, Buckley’s less successful (and occasionally risky) endeavours have been canonised, at the risk of tarnishing his legacy.
And yet in spite of these blemishes, Buckley’s artistic immortality was confirmed long ago, thanks to the transcendence of what was completed on his own terms. Grace is certainly a tragic reminder of a talent lost too soon, but it carries within it so much life and fire, its emotions articulated with piercing sincerity that time has sharpened rather than blunted. In the span of its fifty minutes, not a single note rings false.
My Spin on Masterworks: 15 of 25
Slave to the Rhythm
Maybe it’s a sign that I need to get out more, but I’ve developed a mild fascination with overlaps in music taste between people and their parents. I don’t mean blasé scoffing at generational trends, or the expectable appreciation of timeless cultural heroes – instead I’m much more interested in how we share our favourite discoveries with our nearest and dearest. Bonding over music with friends is obviously a great joy, but making musical discoveries with parents with an equal level of success is something else altogether.
I love my dad, and while he hasn’t sculpted my musical tastes to a tee (I think both of us just have to accept that I will never match his unbridled enthusiasm for Jethro Tull), we’ve successfully converted one another to a fair share of nifty sounds over the years. There are countless albums of his that I grew to adore growing up, and likewise, I’ve steadily encouraged his appreciation for a handful of contemporary artists (this year’s winner is John Grant). It’s a fun and ever-continuing game of taste-testing, but the one particularly noteworthy record that Poppa Perry has repeatedly drawn my attention to is Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm, which he has championed as his all-time favourite album for as long as I can remember. I only gave it proper time and attention in my early twenties, and though I don’t hold Slave to the Rhythm with the same extremely high regard as my dad does, it indisputably remains a damn fine record, and I’m hugely appreciative that his fandom encouraged me to delve into it too. He prompted me to discover – and gain a great admiration for – one of the coolest icons in art’s sweeping spectrum.
From the very beginning, Grace Jones’ career has been intimidatingly awesome. Through the decades, her work in various fields has been studded with the kind of high points that resemble so many dreams come true. As fashion icon, fleeting big-screen star, and queen of new wave, she has consistently drawn from a well of charisma that has never dwindled, even as she approaches seventy years of age. Specifically, her music is worthy of regular rediscovery and reappraisal, given that her finest recordings still hold their own in the modern fray of superheroic pop stars.
The first half of the 1980s proved to be a particularly fertile period for Jones, whose career was blossoming across several mediums. Before landing significant roles in a number of Hollywood movies (and allegedly turning down the part of Zhora in Blade Runner, much to her subsequent regret), she released what is widely regarded as her musical apex. For her fifth album – 1981’s Nightclubbing – she shed the disco tropes of previous years in favour of a sleek retooling of contemporary rock and pop hits, reshaping them with touches of new wave, reggae, funk, and R&B. Her reworkings of Flash and the Pan’s ‘Walking in the Rain’, Bill Withers’ ‘Use Me’ and others are wonderfully confident, successful because she completely owns them. So much more than a typical “covers” album, she reinvented the selected works as Grace Jones songs, refreshing them with her signature glamour and in several cases, eclipsing the qualities of the original material. It was Nightclubbing that cemented Jones as a star, but it was four years later that Slave to the Rhythm went one further, and mythologised her.
There is no ambiguity to the previous statement. The music of Slave to the Rhythm is interspersed with monologues taken from Jean-Paul Goude’s 1982 memoir Jungle Fever, and as recited by Ian McShane, Goude clarifies his intention to “deliberately […] mythologise Grace Jones”. Goude (Jones’ professional and personal partner of the era) was referring to his work on Jones’ image and stagecraft during the Nightclubbing years, and his attempts to marry Jones’ striking fashion appeal with equally bold musical statements. Yet Goude’s wishes were realised with even greater audacity in Slave to the Rhythm, on which Jones’ dynamic magnetism is articulated and preserved in a fascinating, tight-knit concept album; one which was originally intended as an aural biography of “Miss Grace Jones” herself.
Although it seems a little less adventurous by today’s standards, Slave to the Rhythm is as intriguing and left-field a concept as any which emerged from the music of the 1980s. The project (originally intended for Frankie Goes to Hollywood) entailed key members of ZTT Records basing an album around a single song, repeatedly reworked and refracted into different forms. The results were then peppered with recorded interviews between Jones and journalist Paul Morley (a co-founder of ZTT), and extracts of Jungle Fever as drawled by McShane. The desired effect was to produce a concentrated glimpse of Jones at the breathtaking peak of her powers. (A later, abridged edition of Slave to the Rhythm saw the tracklist shuffled and the interview segments removed, and though some hardcore fans remain dissatisfied with the rerelease, both versions successfully carry the “demonic charge” promised in the record’s opening moments.)
The final result sits on the right side of ostentatious: it is ambitous rather than arrogant, playful rather than smug. There’s a tangible curiosity at work behind Slave to the Rhythm, and for all its conceptual bravura, it is anchored by tasteful compositions that glide between smooth, silky ambience, stuttering funk and soaring 80s bombast. Its taste for the theatrical is perfectly judged: Jones herself is introduced with winking reverence from McShane on a number of occasions (hearing McShane drawl “ladies and gentlemen, Miss Grace Jones” always gives me a kick), and amid the pseudo-grandeur, the album’s team never forget that this is pop music. It’s a wonderful listen, one very much of its time but packing a lively spirit which the intervening decades have not diminished.
Given its very particular structuring, the album’s engine is the single song at its core, and the album is able to soar because said work is a total banger. ‘Slave to the Rhythm’ is one of those perennial singles associated with an artist that accurately reflects their greatest qualities: killer hooks, gleaming production, bags of personality, and a healthy dose of twists up its sleeve. With Jones giving a magisterial vocal performance matched by genuinely cutting subtext (the track contains nods to historic slavery as well as the art world’s regular exploitation of its human resources), the effect is sharp as well as savvy, capturing Jones at her towering best.
The album is completed by myriad variations of its titular centrepiece, including the mighty opener ‘Jones the Rhythm’, the dreamy ambience of ‘Don’t Cry – It’s Only the Rhythm’, and bizarre vocal collage ‘Operattack’. One would be tempted to claim that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, were it not for the fact that Slave to the Rhythm reverses that very notion. These tracks aren’t built to stand alone, because they are split versions of a single composition. Although it packs its individual highlights, Slave to the Rhythm is one of those albums which genuinely demands to be taken in its entirety, and not simply for the sake of crafty sequencing or perfectionism. Taken piecemeal, not everything sticks, running the risk of sounding bizarre, undercooked or pretentious. When taken as a whole, it’s playful, engaging, and thoroughly enjoyable.
By rights, Slave to the Rhythm is the kind of project which should have immediately curdled into self-indulgent, high-minded “art-pop”. Of course, it isn’t bereft of indulgences, and the nature of its very genesis is problematic in some ways. (In general, Goude’s fascination with and festishisation of “black, shiny, muscular people […] aerodynamic in design” is a little harder to swallow three decades later.) But the end result is tremendous, largely due to the fact that, above and beyond every other factor, Grace Jones herself is so incredibly commanding throughout. Even when her vocals are treated, chopped to pieces and arranged in patchworks beyond her own natural abilities, she completely dominates her sonic surroundings. She is the force around which all else revolves: a shrieking storm of energy whose every appearance – no matter how often it is recycled – leaves an impression. The finished result (abridged or not) is a fabulous paean to her own iconic stature: even if she hadn’t released her memoirs in 2015, listeners could turn to Slave to the Rhythm for a successful distillation of Grace Jones’ essence. It’s at once a tremendous musical work, an intriguing technical project, and a terrific testament to the power of Jones herself.
And it’s my dad’s favourite album of all-time. Cracking choice, pops!