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.

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David Bowie – The Joy Of The Unexpected

The almost universal outpouring of joy prompted by the entirely unforeseen release of a new track by David Bowie on the occasion of his sixty-sixth birthday was itself not a huge surprise. After giving up hope of a return and with many articles having been written about how he had gently retreated into a gracious retirement after a health scare, the world was not braced for more Bowie. ‘Reality‘ was where it had all ended, a brief burst of creativity extinguished by the ravages of time doing their worst. How we pined for him, whilst not begrudging him a well-earned rest. He is a truly remarkable artist and it seemed unsettling to accept that we would hear no more from him. The euphoria prompted by ‘Where Are We Now‘ was like the reaction that might greet the second coming of a beloved elderly relative. They’d had a good innings, we were all very lucky to have known them but our grief is slowly fading and we’re trying to move on. And then they reanimate and walk back into your living room and into your heart, singing about ‘Potsdamer Platz’. As Peter Robinson put it on Twitter, “this is like waking up to find it has snowed.”

But why does this artist inspire such passion across the generations? If your formative years happened to coincide with those infamous Top Of The Pops performances and that rich vein of form through the Seventies, it’s easy to understand. But when my first single was a Jive Bunny 7″ and the Bowie of that time was forming Tin Machine and picking over the discarded copies of ‘Never Let Me Down‘ it’s not quite obvious. His willingness to constantly evolve has ensured that he had a role in most contemporary music scenes for over forty years, up to 2003’s ‘Reality’. The critics may been baffled by ‘Outside‘ and gently derisory over ‘Earthling‘ but you could hardly accuse the bloke of coasting. The mature pop of 1999’s ‘Hours’ seemed to hint at the arrival of a more demure Bowie, only for ‘Heathen’ to demonstrate a man still very much keen to push on.

I can still remember planning a trip to Virgin Megastore in Cardiff in order to use up some teenage birthday money on the 2CD set ‘Bowie – The Singles Collection’. Back in the days before any song you could wish to hear, and plenty you wouldn’t, was available with a solitary click, greatest hits albums always felt like getting the keys to the bank. All the good stuff in one place. Smash after smash, radio classic upon vintage singalong. But, unlike so many such collections, a Bowie compilation is not so much a primer for Bowie so much as a primer for popular music. Why do so many people care so much about this new song? Because, for many, he has been a tour guide through a world of wonderful music, a long-established motorway from which to explore curious A roads, an inspiration. A compilation which features ‘Changes’, ‘Rebel Rebel’, ‘Young Americans’, ‘Alabama Song’, ‘Wild Is The Wind’ and ‘Absolute Beginners’, to name only six, gives a pretty remarkable overview of how music had mutated and manoeuvred over the best part of twenty years. And it blew my mind. I didn’t get some of it at first (the Berlin late Seventies stuff mainly, which would subsequently become cherished) and I still don’t get other bits (mainly ‘Dancing In The Street’ with Jagger), but for someone raised on a beige diet of Britpop, and of course Jive Bunny, it was a revelation.

Station To Station‘ is my default answer when asked my favourite Bowie album, but only ‘Tonight’, ‘Never Let Me Down’ and the Tin Machines fail to have soft spots in my heart. Even ‘Black Tie White Noise‘ with its hilariously bombastic early 90s pop will get defended. He can falter, but he never falls. The simple act of returning was always going to generate a huge response but to do so with such a brilliant tune is all the more remarkable. The repetitive chorus of ‘Where Are We Now‘ is getting me every time. Something about the delivery of those words and ‘the moment you know, you know, you know’ thereafter is going through me. The very best music goes far beyond the brain and gently tickles the soul. That nagging refrain hasn’t left my head in 36 hours and I am very much ok with it. Roll on the new album, long live the legacy. The return of Bowie is very, very good news for fans new and old and still to be found. Everyone has a point when Bowie clicked for them, a moment we cherish, a moment when you know, you know, you know.

 

Classic Album: David Bowie ‘Station To Station’

Few artists reach the milestone of ten studio albums. Fewer still are actually at the peak of their powers when they do so. Unfortunately for rock chronologists and obsessive fans alike, David Bowie is able to remember little about the genesis of this remarkable record. Its story is nevertheless an interesting one and serves to chart the transitional process between Bowie the chart smash and the artist responsible for the imperious Berlin trilogy of ‘Low‘, ‘”Heroes“‘ and ‘Lodger‘.

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In the time prior to recording, Bowie was inhabiting the character of Thomas Jerome Newton for Nicolas Roeg‘s film, ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’. Newton, an extra-terrestrial obsessed with television, was one of his most striking roles. While far less flamboyant than Ziggy, Newton’s haunting appearance is an entirely apt representation of Bowie at this stage in his career. Indeed, he admitted to hanging onto this character for months after filming and images from the shoot adorn the cover of both this album and its successor, ‘Low‘. From this grew The Thin White Duke, the last of Bowie’s adopted personae in the Seventies, whose monochrome attire dominated press photos and tours surrounding this record. Continue reading “Classic Album: David Bowie ‘Station To Station’”

2010 – Defrosting the overflow pipe

Best of 2010Having concluded the rundown of this year’s finest albums, it seems only fair to mop up those which just missed the cut or were simply released too late to have enough of an impact. Now, if you are of a sensitive disposition or still find that mentions of Robbie Williams bring you out in a rash, I’d skip the bit about Take That if I were you. But make sure you’re still reading when I get onto Gregory & The Hawk, Edwyn Collins, The Phantom Band, Broken Records and Caribou.
But first, reissues. 2010 was a bumper year for deluxe reissues and some of the finest musical acts had their histories dusted off, turned up and even, in some cases, remastered for the better. Whether we’re talking about the simple but splendid best of from Suede or uber-deluxe box sets for which the mortgaging of your house or first-born were a requirement, there was plenty of scope for misty eyed nostalgia this year and it really sound rather good. The Orange Juice box set deserves another quick mention here because it is one of those bodies of work which you really should have nestlings on your shelf somewhere. It’s the aspect of music consumption which still requires you to keep at least one toe out of the all digital download lifestyle, as box sets are no fun without the, er, box. Collection pretty much everything they ever did and including some things which aren’t strictly necessary but nice to have anyway, ‘Coals To Newcastle’ is a lovingly curated set, with all due attention to detail awarded to these magnificent songs. Naturally, sometimes it’s a bit too unavoidably Eighties on the production side, but that is largely part of the charm of these acerbic, energetic and downright precocious tunes. If you missed the boat on requesting this for Christmas, think of it as a pre-VAT increase treat to yourself. Or something. Oh, think of your own lie then.

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‘Station To Station‘ in its jumbo box edition was the reissue of the year for me, containing as it did a frankly unnecessary number of versions of the same, admittedly magnificent, album which, to my mind, is his best ever and makes for a quite staggering listen via the DVD high resolution audio track of the original master. I’ve written a Spotlight piece on the record for Clash, which will appear in the January issue, hitting news stands any day now. I’m sure some version of it will make its way onto the site at some point. I can see how, at £80, it might not be the most appealing deluxe musical purchase open to you, but, if you’re a big fan of the album, accept the inevitable and get out the cash.

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The top 30 2010 releases was a tricky list to get finished, as at least 35 albums were intensely vying for a position from the off. These New Puritans‘Hidden’ was originally on the list but I found myself wondering exactly how many listens were for pleasure and how many were simply some form of aural challenge. There’s much to appreciate, plenty to be impressed by and, by fuck, they’re good live, but I just wasn’t sure how much I actually loved playing it. And so it just dipped out. Likewise, ‘Swim’, by Caribou, which is a delightfully engaging electronic beast, launched magnificently by the Erland Oye featuring ‘Odessa’. In the vague mental lists which preceded the final countdown, it was caught in a battle with Four Tet for the position of ‘electronic album in the 30-21 bit’ and at the last minute dropped out altogether. Well worth sampling, as I suspect even if the whole thing doesn’t grab you, certain bits will. Edwyn Collins made a heartwarming comeback, prompting good feeling from pretty much anyone who likes music, and delivered a raw, direct and potent record in ‘Losing Sleep‘. The slightly raggedy edges only added to the charm. But for the occasionally annoying multitude of guest performers, it would likely have been comfortably within the list and I still feel a little odd about leaving this one out. A late arrival in my orbit was ‘Leche’ by Gregory & The Hawk, which is actually singer-songwriter Meredith Godreau doing her quirk-pop, orchestrated-folk, endearing whimsy thing. The voice takes a few listens to learn to love, but once she’s got you, you’ll be hooked. If you like your Alessi’s Ark or early Joanna Newsom then ‘Leche’ is one for you to seek out in the early days of the new year.

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The Phantom Band continued to do their own thing, building on the majesty of ‘Checkmate Savage‘ and pursuing a more fleshed out and substantial sound with ‘The Wants‘. It’s a great album, and one which I suspect will continue grow on me as the months roll along. The other one with potential for being a sleeping giant is the second offering from Broken Records, ‘Let Me Come Home‘, which sounded a little to studied and Acarde Firey on first listen, and you’ll have noticed the incredibly high placing of ‘The Suburbs’‘ in the end of year list. That said, some cracking songs and one which I think will rise victorious out of the long wintery evenings.

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Which just leaves Take That‘s ‘Progress’ which, and I shit you not, is the finest pop album of the year, the best thing they’ve ever released and, gasp, all the better for the return of Robbie. An electronic pop album which evokes everything from the Scissor Sisters to Bowie‘s techno period, it is a fine, fine, mature record, marking the first successful foray into the notion of the ‘man band’. ‘The Flood’ is now ubiquitous, but ‘SOS’, ‘Kidz‘ and ‘Happy Now’ are all minor triumphs deserving of your attention. Seriously. The marvellously Hi-NRG way in which the chorus kicks in on that last track is a delight to behold. By all means ignore me on this, and clearly there are at least 30 albums more deserving of your attention than ‘Progress’, but if you write it off out of pop snobbery, more fool you and your empty, joyless life.

It was Kevin Greening’s last record on Radio 1

A strange day today. Not only have I had it made clearer than ever before the need to save the independent record shops from almost certain doom but I’ve also experienced the potential upside of the iTunes store.
Actually made a special journey to Sheffield today to visit Record Collector, a revered indie store at the heart of the city’s music scene. From my personal perspective it was, well, alright, but as a shop it was a marvel. If I hadn’t bought so many bloody records then I’d have been thrilled by the incredibly good pricing, but as it was I kept finding myself saying ‘Bollocks’ before thinking ‘Well, I’ve had it for a while now, and got good use out of it.’ Who am I fooling? Sadly the vinyl section was closed to due to ‘long-term illness’ which is no doubt more sad for the person involved, rather than people who just want some cheap LPs. Still, it’s a great little shop and it serves a clear purpose to an obvious audience. Not quite as spiffing as my beloved Reveal Records but then what is. I’m not sure I can ever move so that I’m not near enough for regular visits. Ever.
Then, upon returning, I had a gift voucher for iTunes so I thought I’d round up a few ‘iTunes exclusive’ thingies I was going to pick up recently. Then, figuring that I wasn’t going to do anything else with the credit, started tiddling around searching for certain names to see what they’ve been involved in. It’s been rather interesting listening. For example, I’ve never heard Damon Albarn‘s cover of ‘We Have A Technical‘ with Matt Sharp before and it’s, well, not brilliant, but interesting. That’s the key word here, folks. Similarly, Damon, Graham Coxon, Thurston Moore and Voafose‘s collaboration, ‘101% / Threpton‘ from the bafflingly titled, ‘Fabulous Shit‘ was, you guessed it, interesting. None of these tracks are going to make future compilations, but they’re nice to have. Also picked up the Super Furries‘ ‘The Proper Ornaments‘ from ‘The Free Design : The Now Sound Redesigned.’ No idea what it’s ‘supposed’ to be, but it’s bloody good. I have to confess to downloading ‘Where I Find My Heaven‘ by the Gigolo Aunts too, but we don’t need to dwell upon that.
Anyway, who knew that iTunes could be a satisfying experience? Even with things as ace as the ‘Live at SoHo EP’ for ‘The Good, The Bad & The Queen‘ record, I still resent paying for digital files, rather than a physical item. Downloads don’t mean an awful lot to me. I’m far, far less likely to play something on a CD-R than a proper CD, and furthermore, if I like a record, I want a proper copy on the shelf. But, having said that, I did quite enjoy the hour spent pootling round the iTunes store. Frigid Vinegar‘s ‘Dogmonaut 2000‘ brought back some bizarre memories, and I think I’ll download Bowie‘s ‘Baal EP‘ in a moment, to supplement my prized 7″ copy.
That said, and this is where the big lesson came whilst browsing not only Record Collector in Sheffield, but also the charmingly traditional Hudsons in Chesterfield, the thought of this being the only way we do things in the future is horrifying. It’s a nice little toy. A digital jukebox, but you get to keep the songs you choose in a little file. It’s not, however, wholesome, aesthetically pleasing or materialistic to suit me.