BEST OF 2016: Songs Of Loss

It was interesting to hear Francis Whately this week confidently asserting that David Bowie didn’t stage manage his exit quite as perfectly as the timing of events makes it so tempting to assume. Johan Renck, the director of both the ‘Blackstar’ and ‘Lazarus’ videos, confirmed in Whately’s ‘The Last Five Years’ documentary that the setting for the latter’s visual representation had been decided prior to Bowie hearing that his treatment was to be concluded. It’s an almost instinctive reflex to think that some of the performance was altered as a result or that aspects were plotted with knowledge of the likelihood of his circumstances in mind, but we’ll never know for certain. Interpreting the ‘real’ meaning behind art is tricky enough at the best of times but, when it comes to scrutinising work born of grief and manifestations of mortality, our tendency to apply additional layers of interpretation from a distance in the future, laced with comforting hindsight, is almost unstoppable.

Three of 2016’s finest albums fell into this bracket for me. Two appeared to confront their maker’s demise, one more literally than the other, while the third seemed inextricable from the tragic loss of a child. Only ‘Skeleton Tree’, by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, was released with the audience fully aware of those additional, meaning-distorting events. Both ‘Blackstar’ and Leonard Cohen’s ‘You Want It Darker’ just made it out into the world prior to their creators’ final breaths. Re-reading reviews of Bowie’s final album published just prior to his passing, it’s startling to be reminded of the theories around ISIS and shunning fame when scrutinising the lyrics. Whereas Cohen’s words were less oblique and had a finality suggesting at the very least a second retirement, it was simply unthinkable that Bowie – only recently returned from a lengthy absence and seemingly in prolific form – might be talking about himself. The difference in listening to ‘Dollar Days’ and ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ on Friday January 8th 2016 and on Monday January 11th 2016 spelt this out as clearly as any words can do now, some twelve months later.

By the time ‘You Want It Darker’ emerged, David Remnick’s remarkable piece on its author had been published in The New Yorker. It was clear from his encounter with Cohen that Remnick saw the reality of this man’s situation. Much coverage was generated by a comment about some new lyrics, “I don’t think I’ll be able to finish those songs. Maybe, who knows? And maybe I’ll get a second wind, I don’t know. But I don’t dare attach myself to a spiritual strategy. I don’t dare do that. I’ve got some work to do. Take care of business. I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.” If there had been any uncertainty about the meaning behind some of the songs on what would soon be confirmed as his final album, and there clearly was from reading advance reviews, then this largely put paid to it, coating it in a layer of grave meaning too heavy to shake.

I’ve still not watched ‘One More Time With Feeling’. I intend to, but couldn’t quite bring myself to attend a late night screening on my own of something I knew would likely dislodge certain emotions. The imminent DVD release will do for me, but coverage of it and ‘Skeleton Tree’ have hardly held back on the curious nature of the subject matter, with most of the lyrics written prior to the death of his fifteen-year-old son, Arthur, in the summer of 2015.  Some of the seemingly prophetic imagery is disconcerting and it’s pretty clear that the sonic palette of the record reflects the conditions of its creation, even if the raw materials had been crafted in advance of them. It is a staggering record, both ugly and beautiful at different times and sometimes simultaneously both. Else Torp’s majestic presence on ‘Distant Sky’ offers the closest thing to balm, while ‘Anthrocene’ seems consciously grubby in its production. The overall effect of ‘Skeleton Tree’ is less oppressive than one might expect and certainly not an album that one avoids because of its raw emotions. It is, as with all three of these records, great art from adversity.

After the comically awful artwork for 2014’s nevertheless pretty decent ‘Popular Problems’, it would have been reasonable to assume that Leonard Cohen was unlikely to ever add another classic to his beautiful but sporadic output. Not only were the visuals pinpoint perfect for ‘You Want It Darker’, but the thirty-six minutes of music serve as a quite magnificent farewell. The proximity of its release to my own loss perhaps played a part in this becoming so resonant and affecting, but it will be as tied to 2016 for me as ‘Blackstar’, despite the lack of a modern jazz band. The arrangements are sparse but specific: no lack of attention to detail for this final statement. ‘Leaving The Table’, ‘Travelling Light’ and the title track are particular high points, each addressing the subsequent departure in their own particular ways. However, the track to which I keep returning is represented in two parts. ‘Treaty’ appears to be a reflection on his relationship with God, Cohen’s low rumble stating rather wearily, “I’m angry and I’m tired all the time.” A deeply powerful track, no matter how many times you return to it, even its creator couldn’t resist revisiting it before pulling down the final curtain, concluding things with ‘String Reprise / Treaty’, elevating the refrain to elegiac status and allowing one final trip around those aching emotions. The procession concludes and a remarkable talent is lost to the world.

Like many others, I’m braced for the curious emotions of the media commemorating Bowie during the week marking one year since his death. While Cohen’s departure felt sad but at least plausible, the sudden switch from an imagined immortality to complete absence in the case of the dame was so hard to process. I have been watching endless YouTube clips of him pretty much ever since, lunging at each rediscovered interview from several decades ago and absorbing anything I didn’t already know about him. Adam Buxton’s ‘Bowie Wallow’ podcasts were a soothing treat and a righteous celebration, while Steve Schapiro’s book of photography offered fascinating snapshots from one of my favourite eras. My iPod has pretty much the entire discography on it, just in case there’s something obscure that I need to reach for at any given moment. The immersion in his work that was prompted by his passing faded a little over the months, but not a lot. ‘Blackstar’ didn’t leave the car for over a month after the news, ‘Station To Station’ soundtracked the journeys to and from the hospital during my dad’s final days and there was a week in the summer when I played almost nothing but ‘Low’, over and over. ‘Blackstar’, however, has been picked over time and again and I fear I have nothing new to say about it.

Having gleefully dragged my wife into the living room after she arrived home from work to hear the line “Man, she punched me like a dude” delivered with such gusto at the start of ‘’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore’ on the day of the album’s release and puzzled over the references back to ‘A New Career In A New Town’ on closing track ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, we then spent an hour or so the following morning flicking through the ‘Best Of Bowie’ DVD, still in awe of the man. The weekend around the release of ‘Blackstar’ was as Bowie-saturated as any I had had in some time. It made the winding sensation upon being told on the following Monday morning by a colleague that he had died all the more sickening. Unlike some, I didn’t avoid the album as a result. It was a way of dealing with the news. A focal point for a potent range of emotions. And so began the process mentioned earlier, of applying hindsight to a set of songs that had already begun to assert themselves according to one set of rules only for everything to change entirely.

Blackstar’, ‘Skeleton Tree’ and ‘You Want It Darker’ have little in common musically or lyrically. They are linked by circumstance and by theme. They are all subject to the distortions of their audience but they all rise to the challenge rather than buckling under such weight. They bring comfort in times of distress and offer perspective when clarity is lacking. They are inseparable as my albums of 2016 and their potency remains undiminished.

BEST OF 2016: Villagers – Where Have You Been All My Life?

It all hinges on ‘Wichita Lineman’, a piece of music so ubiquitous that one could be forgiven for thinking that it’s impossible to do a bad version of it. There is some truth in that, in as much as a truly great song will eke out a shallow breath even after some fairly brutal treatment at the hands of a careless producer or inept vocalist, but it’s actually a little more complex. In fact, what is so often the case with songs like this is that the really tricky thing is doing a version that is genuinely, sincerely great. It is at the other end of the scale where so many artists flounder. The song is golden and they’re dab hands themselves, so what could go wrong? As it turns out, after half an hour of rummaging around on Spotify, quite a lot. I’ve always been partial to R.E.M.’s raw live take released around the time of their finest album, ‘New Adventures In Hi-Fi’, and there’s a Smokey Robinson & The Miracles version that I didn’t know but now rather like, but most of what remains would make for a fairly mediocre lift experience. Johnny Cash’s late period approach almost flattens it, Sergio Mendes rips out its heart, Tom Jones over-emotes it in a way that only a man who believes he’s far sexier than anyone else does could do and whatever the hell botoxed Marti Pellow thought he was up to is not immediately clear. In short, ‘Wichita Lineman’ can make some of the best, and Marti Pellow, sound like X Factor third week evictees if it’s not treated well.

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All of which is a lengthy way of setting the context for this overlooked gem of a record that crept out on January 8th. As was the case for most things released around the time of Bowie’s death, it had little chance of catching the public’s attention. Add in the fact that it was a collection of intimate re-workings of mostly previously released material, recorded in a day, and it doesn’t sound like one to set the world alight. A quick dash through the tracks upon release was arrested after trialling yet another take on the aforementioned Jimmy Webb-penned classic about the lonely worker. Conor O’Brien’s tender, creaky delivery breathes new life into a song that’s had more than its fair share of outings. As an album closer it is majestic and it is a compliment to his own material that it sounds entirely in keeping with the fifty minutes of music that precede it here.

Opening with two tracks from 2010’s ‘Becoming A Jackal’, it becomes immediately clear that there is a logic behind this endeavour. While that debut holds up six years on, the refinement on show here serves to recast some of those tracks as modern torch songs. ‘Set The Tigers Free’, with its hushed drums and lulling synth is a glorious opener, conveying the fact that O’Brien’s voice is a much more nuanced vehicle for these words than it once was. The descending piano part on ‘Everything I Am Is Yours’ extracts one of the glorious but subtle elements of the original and foregrounds it as the whole thing speeds up and take off.

Songs that might have otherwise been regarded as pleasant parts of previous records suddenly appear fully realised. ‘My Lighthouse’ benefits from a sparse performance, with just a little light flugelhorn and dramatic reverb taking it somewhere other than its incarnation on 2013’s ‘{Awayland}’. ‘That Day’, from the debut, loses its zip of old and instead becomes all the more forlorn and enveloping, the final minute one of those magical examples of an artist and their band slowly removing themselves from the landscape note by note and decibel by decibel.

The Soul Serene’ is one of the more grandiose moments on a largely demure set, imbued with a little more energy than the version on 2015’s ‘Darling Arithmetic’, while ‘Memoir’ makes its first appearance as a Villagers song, having originally been written for Charlotte Gainsbourg. A nimble shuffle with a beautiful chorus, it should serve as another incentive for anyone grumbly enough to feel like the logic behind this release isn’t worthy of their time. The burbling electronica of 2013’s ‘The Waves’ makes way for the alchemical fizz that can emerge from a small group of musicians playing in front of each other, lost in the moment. In crafting a cohesive palette for all twelve songs, O’Brien has arrived at something truly special.

Perhaps most telling in my assertion of the quality of ‘Where Have You Been All My Life?’ is the fact that none of Villagers’ previous albums have made it into my end of year countdowns. This spontaneous performance became a perfect storm. From the title and artwork right the way through to the final studio ambience that concludes ‘Wichita Lineman’, this is a musician in his element, portraying the strongest examples of his work in the most magical of lights.

Where Have You Been All My Life?’ is out now on Domino.