Sunday, 30 October 2016

Three Albums

This has been an interesting year, in more ways than one. Good year, too. French imagination of Mick Harvey. Luke Haines's songwriting masterclass. PJ Harvey's political classic. The mental story of “Ulgae”. A Season In Hull

Three albums, however, do stand out. Three albums you aren’t even supposed to write about, objectively or otherwise. Three albums that form some sort of surreal, ungodly trilogy. Three albums revolving around death.

First, there was that harrowing farewell, David Bowie's Blackstar, which sounds as disturbing now as it did back in January. It was not a death album, not quite. It was defiance rather than surrender. Bowie's final trick. Black magic. 

Like the rabbit from childhood years that was drenched in blood. A girl called Martha got it as a present from a friend of mine; this furry, fluffy thing with huge ears and a disarming light in the eyes. Before that, however, Martha had fallen from a bike and got a bloody nose, and was now crying, and staring at the rabbit that was meant to calm her down. It did not. Nothing could. For her, that rabbit would forever be associated with blood and tears and that most awful evening in late July. 

Likewise, Blackstar will not appease anyone. And neither will the pre-album version of “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” with its unnerving story of a bitter loss. Blackstar is a death album, down to the last drop. Death by association.

Then there was Nick Cave's Skeleton Tree. Or rather - it all began with a documentary you hated to see but could not look away from. There's nothing, really, that could describe the experience of being glued to the red seat listening to Arthur Cave singing "Deep Water". 

This was not an album about death - he did that back in mid-90s, with Murder Ballads. Skeleton Tree was an album informed and inspired by death. It was genuine to a fault, and I could not believe my eyes when I read the actual reviews. Every single one looked fake. 

The dim promise of songs like "Distant Sky" and the title cut looped into darkness, again and again, and in the end you could hardly have any doubts about who that 'she' in "Rings Of Saturn" really was. It was an otherworldly beauty, as authentic as the sadness of "As I Sat Sadly By Her Side".

And then, finally, there was Leonard Cohen's You Want It Darker. Which did not really stray too far away from his trip to the dying Marianne of his 1967 classic or the recent interview in the New Yorker in which he claimed he was ready to meet his Master.

The Master, though, had long become an impostor, a nobody, a cheap trickster who could no longer get him high. In the days of youth and innocence you may have seen "Treaty" as a broken-hearted ballad but there could be no mistake now. 

Cohen has never been as vicious as that.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Monday, 17 October 2016



My biggest issue with Twitter is that it has demystified the Artist. Devoid of mystery, the Artist has turned into Everyman. Deplorable. 'Please don't Twitter', as Robert Forster sang on his brilliant last album, ‘let me imagine you’. However, there's precious little to imagine when everything is on your fucking screen. 

Art, though, is bigger than the Artist, and despite years of snide one-liners and musical self-indulgence, Luke Haines still has it. Oh lots of it. You may have forgotten that sweet/sinister melodic genius after the musically unexceptional New York in the 70s (I still can't wring blood out of "Lou Reed Lou Reed"), the murky and perfunctory Adventures in Dementia and the self-consciously quirky British Nuclear Bunkers, but the truth remains – Haines is still the best living songwriter this side of Robert Forster.

Which should become obvious after the first ten seconds of "Are You Mad?" whose melody is the perfect reflection of what may well be the best description of Haines's music: “Listening to a Haines record is like being kidnapped by a masked hostile fiend only to find out they are taking you to the seaside for ice cream and tea” (as said by one John Rain).  

Are you mad like uncle Terry
Or are you mad like mum?
Flapping like a flip-flop
As your stitches come undone.

Because after all, it's the melody you hear in "Are You Mad?" that you love Luke Haines for. It's the melody you want your girlfriend to appreciate because otherwise you would not date her ever again.

And yes, this is Haines's first non-concept album since 21st Century Man. Basically, Smash the System is just a collection of songs. Or better still, Smash the System is the perfect snapshot of this man's career. Pulsating opener "Ulrike Meinhof's Brain Is Missing" harks back to his 90's album about the German terrorist group. "Bomber Jacket" is late-period Auteurs. Gorgeous breather "Cosmic Man (Intro)" could be taken from his concept record about rock'n'roll animals. I could go on.

Elsewhere, it's songwriting brilliance mixed with British whim. Lyrics deal with… everything, really, from oral sex to alphabet spaghetti. Latest reference points include Marc Bolan, Roman Polanski, Bruce Lee, Incredible String Band, Vince Taylor, and I'm just going through the song titles.

It's a diverse record, almost excessively so, and while Luke consciously sacrifices his identity in a couple of places ("Marc Bolan Blues" sounds like T. Rex., and that's both fascinating and slightly disturbing), Smash the System is a long-due triumph. Not everything works, and clearly the rather uneventful "Black Bunny" would not go down in history as a Luke Haines classic, but this is certainly his strongest set of songs in years. 

So in the end – fuck Twitter. When all is said and done, Luke Haines is just a great songwriter. And I insist a bigger compliment does not exist. Not when all you care about is Art.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

'All the clowns that you have commissioned...'

Today, I applaud the brilliant irrelevance of the Nobel committee. Murakami is an awful writer anyway.

By this point, you should have learnt not to overreact. To anything. So I hope it would not be too much of an overreaction to say I don't have a problem with Dylan getting the Nobel Prize in literature.

Not because of Winston Churchill. Not because of some playwright from Mongolia who got the Nobel prize before a million great writers now dead or living. Not because of Obama. Not even because of the president of Colombia. But simply because I think the man deserves it.

If this opens floodgates, so be it. They have been open since John Updike died anyway. And I would love to see Leonard Cohen get it, too.

Not that Cohen would ever get it. After all, this was just a bunch of old men trying to be hip and incidentally (or accidentally?) doing something wicked. But since Dylan's book of lyrics has fascinated me since I was a little boy listening to "Visions Of Johanna" for the first time, I’m delighted. 

Even that first time, the poetry was physical, real and absolutely wonderful. Now, if he is awarded for this by a group of awkward men at a disco party, who the hell cares?

Friday, 7 October 2016

travelling notes (viii)

I'm sorry, Lithuanians. So sorry. Why is that every time I see you, I experience this overwhelming sense of guilt? Honestly, I did not lock you up in Soviet Union. This had NOTHING to do with me. In fact, it happened way before I was even born. But I'm sorry, just in case.