I’d like to say a few Words

In the pre-Twitter, pre-blog world of the mid-Nineties, I used to buy the NME as much for the singles adverts as the coruscatingly jagged reviews. It was a weekly event, a world of temptation and salvation, and an identity badge held between slightly grubby, inky fingers in front of schoolmates. I’ve been reading music magazines for over twenty years, graduating from Smash Hits to the weeklies, before adding an arsenal of monthly titles to bolster my curiosity and empty my wallet. They were already an integral part of my life before I started writing for one. The reviews section always felt like my spiritual home. The NME big reviews, often accompanied by grand illustrations, were urgent and biting, while the pages of Q and Select allowed you to luxuriate a little longer in the thoughts of many great writers. The losses of Vox, Melody Maker and a grotesquely redesigned Select were hard to take, suggesting that if the magazines were ailing so too was the music.

The early Noughties were a barren time for lovers of the music press. The NME had lost me, wandering off down a (now thankfully reversed) skinny-jeaned route to hell, with more emphasis on pictures than words, while Q was finding it very hard to adjust to a digital world where its original readers had moved towards Mojo, with its fifteen Beatles cover a year. New titles came and went, including the flimsy but spiky BANG! and the woefully limp X-Ray. Into a world of non-ironic Mel C covers and anti-stories about what The Strokes weren’t doing, came Word. With its lower-case masthead and dour picture of Nick Cave on the cover, it didn’t exactly scream “vital music ranting here,” but it did stand out. I took a punt and spent a National Express journey in its company. It wasn’t perfect, by any means, but it seemed to be taking contemporary music seriously at a time when few others were. Early issues with substantial pieces on Blur, Elvis Costello and a peculiar new device called the iPod sealed the deal.

A few months after welcoming it to the well-thumbed family, I finally decided to pursue a boyhood dream to get some music writing published and, with email the great leveller in terms of making yourself known, I set about contacting a few of my music writing heroes. When the call from Paul Du Noyer came, it took my twenty year old Literature student self a little while to take it all in but, within minutes, I’d been commissioned to write a page on Elvis Costello, covering three reissues and his jazz album, ‘North‘. Should you wish to put yourself through some slightly torturous bus analogies, you can see that article here.

 

From then on, I was one of Word’s reviews team for almost four years. It was a thrill which never waned, a novelty which never wore off, to go and flick through the magazine in Smiths, despite a copy residing at home, in order to see my work on sale. In a shop. Not that I was deluded enough to think anyone was buying it because I was in it. But I was in it. And that was what mattered. When the Word team rejigged the magazine and thinned down the reviews section, I was no longer required. I found it hard to be annoyed as I couldn’t quite believe I’d got away with it for as long as I had. The support and encouragement of Du Noyer and Jude Rogers, who would quickly take over the reviews section, meant a great deal and without those two particular people, I very much doubt I would still be reviewing today or writing this very piece. That is just one of the many reasons that made Friday’s announcement of the closure of The Word such a kick in the guts.

With the NME having recovered under recently departed editor Krissi Murison’s fine stewardship and Q as good as it has even been with former Word scribe Andrew Harrison in charge and a stellar team of writers in its pages, things didn’t feel quite so bleak for the music press of late. Word is beloved of many media folk but never quite seemed to attract the wider audience it needed. I had occasionally wondered how long it would continue to fight the good fight, but was always reassured by the dependable brash swagger of Mark Ellen and David Hepworth. Was it perfect? No. Is there more to atone for than just that Dido cover way back in 2003? Certainly. But was Word Magazine a creative, welcoming and enthusiastic community which offered something genuinely different? Without doubt, and I will miss it greatly. The great motto for every aspect of the music making, selling and reporting industries seems to be ‘adapt or die’, and yet here was something else which still didn’t work. Maybe there’s just no place for a wide variety of music magazines in the 21st century? Whatever the grim reality of the current situation, the end of this particular magazine hurts more than most. The complete set sits upstairs and will get revisited in the coming weeks. For all the tips, the laughs, the sighs, the ideas, the tunes and the work: thank you. Word.

Where it all began

The latest dip into my oh-so-very self indulgent archives goes right back to the start. As I was lugging bags of shopping out of the boot, the phone rang and I answered, suitably flustered, with a curt, ‘Hello?’, not recognising the number. I was greeted with, “Hi, it’s Paul Du Noyer at Word magazine.” Being more than a little bit of a music press geek, this was a fairly unbelievable moment. My little piece on some Elvis Costello reissues that I’d emailed off a week or so previous had not only been received and read by Paul Du Noyer, but he actually liked it! And here he was, offering me the chance to do a page review of his new one, with the reissues rolled in for good measure. It’s one of those moments that I’ll always remember and it was an instant shot of euphoria that’s hard to top. Looking back at it now, its not too bad. The bus analogy could be worse and you can tell I used to absorb anything and everything I read  – I still regularly read six titles – but I reckon it’s not a bad debut!

Feel free to tell me otherwise!

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ELVIS COSTELLO

North (and re-issues of Get Happy! Trust and Punch The Clock)

Deutsche Grammophon

The odds of hearing Elvis Costello singing; “I want to kiss you in a rush, and whisper things to make you blush” were never very high. It is not what you would expect of him. Which is probably why he’s gone and done it. One suspects he’s not keen on the idea of being predictable. His last album, released on a hip-hop label was a College Chart Number One in America. Other recent work included providing the music for a ballet production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and recording the old Chaplin tune ‘Smile’ for a Japanese detective show. The man simply, and rather charmingly, cannot be pigeonholed. Speaking in WORD some months back, Costello told how he felt his last release, ‘When I Was Cruel’, “didn’t have a tremendous amount of heart” to it. By contrast his new album wears its heart ever so firmly on its sleeve.

Those of us willing to invest in Costello’s eclecticism have long since given up trying to guess what will be heard after pressing play on each new release. Pooling classical and jazz influences, ‘North’ plots an emotional journey that one would be churlish to pretend does not begin with his split from Cait O’Riordan in the autumn of last year. A sparse sombre tone pervades the initial tracks and you can’t help but wonder if loss and pain will loom like storm clouds over the entire album.

The mood lightens as the album progresses with a certain air of chronological autobiography. On ‘Still’, The Brodsky Quartet are finally reunited with Costello, a decade on from the glorious ‘Juliet Letters’, and their appearance appears to bring about a more engaging performance style that propels the record to its conclusion. ‘Let Me Tell You About Her’ is virtually a “conventional” love song, one of Costello’s first. You can almost picture Costello gliding over the keys in the corner of a smoky jazz bar, while the muted trumpet finale surely begs for a black and white film for it to soundtrack. It’s gorgeous, with the vocal making full use of Costello’s baritone while the lyrics are immensely heartfelt if unexpectedly, but utterly forgivably, a tad clumsy.

‘North’ comes to its close with ‘I’m In The Mood Again’, thus completing our hero’s journey towards his new-found happiness with Diana Krall. The melody reflects the lighter mood that has replaced the foreboding initial textures, and contentment is as prominent as it can be on an album bearing the legend ‘Elvis Costello’. In the sleeve notes of the remastered ‘Punch The Clock’ Costello describes much of his oeuvre as “allergic to the happy ending”, but, ever one to contradict, ‘North’ appears more than willing to buck such a trend.

As well as ‘Punch The Clock’, ‘Get Happy!’ and ‘Trust’ have also just re-emerged as part of the ongoing reissue programme. It’s hard to pick fault with the whole collection let alone these three, which between them contain over seventy bonus tracks; a live version of ‘High Fidelity’ aping the style of Bowie’s ‘Station To Station’ and practically the entire ‘Punch The Clock’ album in its uncluttered demo form amongst the highlights.

Costello’s accompanying essays are almost worth the admission fee alone, with recollections as wide-ranging as mistakenly adding echo to Chet Baker’s trumpet part on ‘Shipbuilding’ and the magical imagery conjured by the phrase “a rather lifeless lesbian discotheque”, which was apparently the only nearby entertainment during the recording of ‘Get Happy!’. The remastered sound is warm and forgiving, even with parts of ‘Punch The Clock’, and the bonus discs are genuine delights in every instance.

It’s hard to imagine ‘North’ selling as well as these earlier albums did, and I can’t imagine Costello is that bothered. This is another of those albums he’s wanted to make, another expression of his desire to try everything and a record that will no doubt incite as much criticism from some as it will praise from others. It’s not a classic, but it’s a lovingly crafted record that you will keep returning to, slowly allowing its subtle charms to seep in.

Speaking to the BBC a few years ago, Elvis said: “if you don’t like this one, maybe you’ll like the next one. They’re not all a series of red buses that are all the same”. Listening to the shift from ‘When I Was Cruel’ to ‘North’, quite what sort of buses the record companies will be repackaging twenty years from now, God only knows.

Originally published in Word Magazine, 2003