Thursday, 6 October 2016

Paul SIMON: The Rhythm Of The Saints






(#416: 27 October 1990, 2 weeks)

Track listing:  The Obvious Child/Can't Run But/The Coast/Proof/Further To Fly/She Moves On/Born At The Right Time/The Cool, Cool River/Spirit Voices/The Rhythm Of The Saints


On Then Play Long we have already had explorations of what is to come in 1991, as during this liminal period it draws everything else to it like a magnet; but for now - and the next couple of posts to come - there is a sense of things winding down, as well as a sense that the next thing, the new thing, is not far off.

Paul Simon could, by 1990, be said to be hip again - the huge success of Graceland (an album that still pops up now and again in the UK album chart) led to a best of compilation and lots of anticipation as to what he would do next.

Simon looks warily at the camera in the booklet, as if to say he has done all he wants to do now, and would like some privacy, please.  Those expecting (including his record company) another huge album were perhaps taken aback, as he went to Brazil to record and write, and hence the big drums, the beauty and sadness.  The record company rejected his running order and put "The Obvious Child" first as they wanted something upbeat for a single, though there is toughness to it, a kind of middle-aged knowledge that isn't conducive to wacky videos.  "The cross is in the ballpark" sticks out here, in the story of Sonny aging and looking back - who is the "obvious" child?  What does this mean?  The massed drumming is sharp and clacks along like a train, the song grows quiet and then jumps up once more, the parade of Sonny passing him by. 

"Can't Run But" is like mercury in your fingers, or the Chernobyl dust blowing across the world.  The natural world can't be escaped, just as feeling squeezed, destroyed by love (this is the core of the album) cannot be escaped.  The grief, anger and exhaustion of being rejected, divorced, is here.  So, oddly, in this nervous song, is the music industry.  "The music business thrives" even as the singer suffers; Simon, from all evidence here, was divorced from his wife Carrie Fisher, and his misery at this is something he has to work with, cannot avoid.

"The Coast" is more upbeat, dedicated to, in part, Derek Walcott*.  It is about a family of musicians who shelter from the rain in, where else, the church of St. Cecilia (yes, her again.)  The musicians may as well be Simon himself, who talks here about loneliness and then proclaims that sorrow is "worth something" not just as an experience but as an actual negotiable thing for musicians.  "That's worth some money" he repeats, as the neat music burbles along and the sun rises, the stars fall, the world shines; and misery is turning to music, which then becomes money.  The coast here is "injured" as Simon must have felt himself; but that optimism about his new love (he met Edie Brickell in the fall of '88) comes through here too, in a song that is amiable enough but that is also frank about what this album is, in part...

"Proof" is jaunty enough to be on Graceland; it slides and skitters and yet has a toughness that is about the actuality of things, the proof of things, not faith ("an island in the setting sun") - it's the true bottom line, and you get the idea that some of his idealism is lost, and the physical world is the only thing that can be trusted.

"Further To Fly" is a record of his sadness, the love ebbing away, "the open palm of desire" is insatiable, and she is elusive, pushing off like a season goes, disappears, and leaves the lover bereft.  This is the guts of the album, quietly knocking around, steadily circling and flying away, just as she leaves, and things are left broken, his whole life like "a conversation in a crowded room going nowhere."  This is not the luxuriant Nowhere of Ride, big as the world, but being left behind at a party, being left behind in your own house.  So much for the cinematographer's party from Graceland (where he met Fisher perhaps?)  Now he walks the street and wonders if he's crazy.  Welcome to the liminal period, Paul.

The drums insist, pick up, carry him on.  "She Moves On" is about watching her leave on the plane, back to Los Angeles, back home.  He still loves her, but she "cannot stop" and speaks through the backing singers, saying that he has underestimated her power.  Simon is as lost as Bryan Ferry was,  "abandoned, forsaken" and yet this is sorrow, shock recalled in tranquillity - that it is over, that the break is definitive, as the plane escapes through the clouds and again the physical world is altered; she is gone.  I first heard this album as background music in a restaurant, and it is always thrumming with life, but not enough to be truly distracting. 

"Born At The Right Time" is a song that made me feel a bit uneasy, to say the least.  Us twenty-somethings (that term, you know the one, didn't exist just yet) were beginning to understand that we were all pretty much born at the wrong time, altogether. When Simon complains "the planet groans when it registers another birth" I can't help but here that line from "I'm Stone In Love With You" about "the population boom."  (As you'll recall, he is the first man on the moon.)  The song praises these babies born who will never suffer, never struggle, who will "never be lonely" and "never be lied to" and I am wondering just what Simon is on, here.  Everyone suffers, you know?  But the somehow smug music (I don't know how it is, it just sort of shuffles along to its first class seat) makes it sound as if us hapless young listeners have lost again, that it's the children who matter, not us.  Why deny the obvious children?  (And are children coming up again here as symbols of innocence, or again something more physical?)

"The Cool, Cool River" is a lot better, a song of optimism, but one of anger - it pauses, meanders like the river, then sets off briskly again.  The river of prayer is what Simon has to ride on, to get away  from the anger which cannot be healed.  When heaven is mentioned, the horns come in forcefully, as Simon testifies to his ultimate insignificance and he can only say "sometimes even music cannot substitute for tears."  The natural world shifts and changes, "battered dreams" are still there to be dreamt, the future is still there for those with the strength to get through hard times.  Clearly the trip to Brazil was one of hope as much as anything else, a change which helps him - that he gets to work with so many fine musicians is a bonus, of course, but this is a sombre album....

"Spirit Voices" is a song he wrote, with Portuguese lyrics by Milton Nascimento; it is the story of his time in Brazil, where he goes to the forest to have some "herbal brew" (ayahuasca) which is hallucinogenic, and he hears the trees sing - this is where Nascimento's voice come in, soft and sweet as the music.  "Do your best, heart, and have trust" is the ultimate message of the trees, and it is an earthquake (real?  unreal?) for him, to have his experience there in a place of healing, the drink one of "holy water."

The album ends with the title song, one where Simon goes straight into prayer - asking once again that he not be blinded by his weaknesses, that he will soon be "crawling out from under the heel of love."  The prayer is to overcome the enemy, "to dominate the impossible in your life" but he still sounds as if he is down, not triumphant; on his way, and nowhere near getting to where he wants to be.  The music is quietly optimistic, modest, and one line sticks out for me:  "Always a stranger when strange isn't fashionable."

So the quiet samba takes Paul Simon away from TPL; he will not be returning for some time, during which the Russian Futurists will do a fine song named after him; he will release a few albums and age reasonably gracefully, but things like Surprise (produced by Brian Eno) is the closest he gets to TPL in the noughties, only really returning this year with Stranger To Stranger

Meanwhile, somewhere in Germany, two Englishmen make an album with Harold Faltermeyer.

Behold, then:


If the world is changing, then you have to change with it, as Paul Simon learns; some people disappear on you and that is that. 

But of course, there is romance, and there is now something else:  illness.

The two have been likened to each other, but now that metaphor is becoming, for many people, real.  The loss in "Being Boring" is built into the elegant languor of the song itself - now, at a time of crisis, on a swirl of harps, comes Neil and Chris to give us all roses, to - how gauche to say it plain - stand up for love.

It starts with Zelda, who was never bored, and comes to Neil getting on the train to London, exploring the city, relying on friends....the 90s arrive and "all the people I was kissing, some are here and some are missing...."

This is one of the songs of the 90s; do not hold back, do not worry, and take what time you have and use it well. 

If this album sounds tougher than Introspective, then that is because they heard Violator by Depeche Mode and looked at each other and said OMFG we have to do better than that.  In so many words.

"This Must Be The Place I Waited Years To Leave" practically describes itself, hammering away at the insanity and uncomfortable paranoia which seeps in, the bowing and scraping, the "hopelessness" that haunts the narrator, even in his sleep.  "When we fall in love there's confusion."  To be a stranger in your own land....

"To Face The Truth" is about a break up, or about one that is not going to happen as the narrator - a woman, insist the Pet Shop Boys - is unable to be logical, rational, as she is so in love, and unlike Simon does not want proof of her man's infidelity.  The music glides along, a semaphore for panic beeps alongside the long slow lines.  She gets no answer when she asks, and so will not go further; a static situation...

"How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously" is about Bros.  There, I've said it.  Yes, I know they had the same manager, but, by extension it's about pop stars talking up the rainforest and the ozone layer and not really getting into the guts of the thing, just riding these crises like skateboards into the papers.  Yes, it's mean, but it's also accurate...(with a lovely New Jack swing, as well)....

"Only The Wind" is a song of storm and calm; of drama and denial.  A man, a woman, the aftermath of domestic abuse; the man narrates, blaming the hurricane on the weather, and not himself.  It's a song that sounds like a weather report at first, but the piano line is beautiful, the lie of "everything's okay."  "My hands are not shaking...."  The couple are cursed; she is invisible, but should leave.  This is how you sing about an issue, kids.  Subtle, but straightforward.

"My October Symphony" is about Russia, about music, about how to make a revolution into a revelation, bring Motown and Moscow together.  The start is from Shostakovich's Second Symphony and it's "October!" in Russian.  Change is in the air, but what is going to happen?  At this point in 1990, no one quite knew, and the air was full of uncertainty.  The music hems and haws, ooohs and aaahs, as one revolution is remembered in the midst of another....

"So Hard" jumps and beats along, funny but serious, ridiculous but real.  A deliberately old school kind of song, but the kernel of the thing is affairs, double crosses, broken hearts.  Why can't things be easy?  Do people love to hurt others because it is easier than actually being loyal?  A cousin to "Domino Dancing" in a way, only this the narrator is also in on the act, not the one who is being betrayed.  Love is the thing that counts, not affairs....

"Nervously" is about two boys too nervous and shy to get together; it builds up, romantically, awkwardly, with the charming line "right from the start, I approved of you."  The song opens and opens up, gathers courage, and by the time the drums come in you know they are a real, genuine couple, the happiest one here. 

"The End Of The World" pitches us once again into drama, housey pianos, and girls and boys who are or aren't phoning each other, slamming doors and causing scenes - ones that are easy enough to make fun of, really.  Destruction?  Need some sympathy instead says Neil, the real end of the world is perhaps upon us but in the meantime, have some feeling for your fellow humans who are suffering.  Even if it looks melodramatic, to them, it's real....

...and now the end....

....The quite roar, the "endless thoughts and questions" of the tormented, the jealousy of the Other blinding the narrator to what is actually there.  Slow, ponderous, sad; the intensity of the feeling throbs and ebbs, the drums thump and the orchestra (a real one) takes over, and the ambiguity of the line at the end means that maybe the narrator is also jealous....possibly?....

So much excellence here, with Behaviour, and it's hard to see how their imperial phase was over, but it was; an unhappy album for the most part, but one alive to the present and its problems and joys.  A revolution is here, and the Pet Shop Boys are here to remember, to remind us what the end of the world is more likely to be.  Not something a prophet said, but a phone ringing, or not.





Or it could be something else, of course.

The very fact that there were AIDS charities and people willing to step up and record for this album was cool, as it was something unthinkable even a few years before, when AIDS as a cause of death was hushed up, and when "That's What Friends Are For" was released the air slowly seeped back into the room.  By late 1990 the world was ready, only too ready to buy this, as at the time there was a race to find some medicine to make the virus slow down, or be blunted in a way. 
Hence, Red Hot + Blue.

The delights of the album are many I will try to point out a few.  .I am also writing about this as of course it feeds back into "Being Boring" but is a way of saying goodbye to some artists who have already appeared on TPL, and hello to some who sadly never had number one albums.

"I've Got You Under My Skin" is Neneh Cherry talking straight about ostracization, the shunning that made Diana such a revolutionary figure.  Neneh talks of a girl who injected, shot up, and got infected that way.  She is as sharp as possible here, in a way that Cole Porter would have understood.  (For the record, I think Cole Porter is great, and like the PSBs is pretty much faultless lyrically. I will quote bits that I really love.)  "Share your love, don't share the needle."

Oh hello Neville Brothers!  Hello New Orleans! "In The Still Of The Night" is a lovely song of longing, as so many of these songs are, and Aaron Neville's voice is just as trembly and tender as ever here, climbing the stairway of Porter's melody elegantly. "Growing dim on the rim of the hill."

Sinead is back!! "You Do Something To Me" is almost a dress rehearsal for her tortuous (her anguish is palpable) Am I Not Your Girl? album of 1992.  She goes from a whisper to a yelp, a traditional orchestra behind her, just as it would have been in 1929, when it was written. 

Salif Keita!! Welcome to TPL!  "Begin The Beguine" is sung by him in Yoruba, and the song is translated by him as well; it about a song that is remembered with great joy, then sorrow, and then longed for in joy again.  Make them play!

Oh hi there Fine Young Cannibals!  Acoustic FYC for that matter, doing "Love For Sale" in a way that reminds me that young men and young women saw Roland Gift as a sex symbol at the time.  I can fully imagine the BBC banning this at the time, just as they banned so many songs.  Of course it's sexy, it's even got girls in the background getting all...interested.  We won't encounter FYC again here, so it's nice to hear them once again....

"Well, Did You Evah?" is a song from High Society, and I love this version by Debbie Harry
and Iggy Pop just as much, if not more than the original.  The bit where Iggy talks about Los Angeles in the middle is endlessly funny.  "I hear they dismantled Pickfair...it wasn't elegant enough."  I expect Cole Porter would have loved this. Iggy is a true Michigan hick, which really works here - it's swellegant!

"Miss Otis Regrets/It Was Just One Of Those Things" is by Kirsty MacColl and The Pogues, and it's slow at first and then the merry fizzy hop later, and you can imagine Miss Otis' anger easily enough, with Shane as the blithe man who could never murder anyone over love, as he never takes it that seriously.  Everyone still misses Kirsty, I think.  Too bad Shane doesn't do the prologue to the song, where Juliet and Eloise are mentioned....very nice to have these folks all here at TPL, I feel....

Hmm, now doesn't this sound familiar?  Paul Simon?  No, it's David Byrne!! He too has the Brazilian musician, but the joy of this is so unlike the injured Simon.  "Don't Fence Me In" is perfect, on his "cayuse" he travels the world, and while it's not a love song here (though most are) there is a love of the world in it that is just as strong. 

"It's All Right With Me" by Tom Waits is just as weird and crouched over and growly and New Orleans as it should be, and it's even a beautiful melody when he sings it.  As he does, in his own way.  "It's the wrong song in the wrong style."  TPL will get, in its way, back to old Tom soon enough, dear readers.  

Annie Lennox's version of "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" is probably more in keeping with what you would expect of this album, but it is a sad song that is only too appropriate here, and she has the right voice for it.  "How strange the change from major to minor" must be a direct influence on "the minor fall, the major lift." 

U2!

U2!

U2 are back to normal, thank GOD.

"Night And Day" sees the Brian Eno influence back, and literally not a minute too soon.  It's an obsessive song, but since when did Bono sound anything but possessed, really.  Electronic, dark, romantic and swoony.  The return of U2 was the big story at the time, as I recall; a lot of girls listened to this a lot, I bet. 

Les Negresses Vertes' take on "I Love Paris" is particularly great as it is sung in French and English, and you know they know about Paris and how it drizzles and sizzles (not enough usage of those words in songs) and they sound as if they could be on the street doing this, as well as a club.  (And I love London, for the same reasons.)  More French music to come in the fullness of time here on TPL of course....

And now, from Canada, k.d. lang!  Welcome aboard!  "So In Love" is the song that got the airplay in Canada of course, with much made of the video, as well.  k.d. may have been a country star at the time, but her love of the American songbook is evident here, and eventually she will make a whole album of duets with Tony Bennett.  The song is lovely but the punctum here is strong too, all things considered. 

"Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" is again from High Society and The Thompson Twins say farewell to TPL in the best way possible, with probably their best recording, ever.  Also a snub to the 1%, while we're at it.  Tom and esp. Alannah's sneering is brilliant.  "And I don't cause all I want is you!"  "And sleep through Wagner at the Met?"  Did someone say...hip hop?

And hello Erasure, TPL will be getting back to you soon, of course.  "It's Too Darn Hot" is sensual, hot (well, of course) and I love the phrase "pitch the woo" but I fear it's out of fashion, now.  At first Andy sings in his low register, but gets back to normal towards the end; it's done in go-go style.  (Almost none of the songs are done exactly as they were written, but then part of the joy is hearing these songs as new songs, more or less - certainly it introduced me to Cole Porter, at the time.)

The Jungle Brothers!!  Hello!! "I Get A Kick Out Of You" is something they make their own, and here is the only mention of safe sex, and oh yes I am sure the original was banned over here, if it was even a single.  See also "Ain't That A Kick To The Head?" by Dean Martin. 

And now, Lisa Stansfield - HI! - she sings this as if it was written for her, and the line "even the janitor's wife has a perfectly good love life" is A++ Friendly Forebear from Cole Porter.  I think she does her own jazz albums later on, which I should investigate.  "What's the use of swank and cash in the bank galore?" is still a good question.

Jimmy Somerville is here, as you again would expect, with a song of tough optimism.  "From This Moment On" is a love song of not just adoration but eternal love, and yes there's a huge nod to Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" here, too.  Not sung by Jimmy but in the original lyrics:  "The future looks so gay."  Indeed it does. 

And now two songs, one from an American woman - "After You, Who?" by Jody Watley.  One of those songs that is so brilliant it's intimidating, but the warmth of Jody's voice makes it a real thing, somehow....and one from a Scottish man, Aztec Camera.  "Do I Love You?" is a brilliant ending, Roddy Frame's voice cracked and East Kilbride rough, but passionate and an answer, of sorts, to the previous song.  Quiet, and another avowal of eternal love, beautiful, tinkling like stars, love that can and will endure everything.

What to make of all this?  That love is difficult, can leave you bruised, that compassion and sympathy for others is vital, and that love can get you through what seems like the end of the world.  Paul Simon finds solace in nature and his own stubborn will and optimism.  The real storms of life can be treated with empathy, the real things that matter are what count, say the Pet Shop Boys.  And a multitude of voices sing about valuing love over everything on behalf of those who need as much care and friendly actions and words as possible. These are eternal verities, but at the beginning of the 90s it was essential they be restated, and I cannot overstate how important they are now.

Next up:  a boy from Pinner and TAUPIN.


*As I was getting heavily into poetry at this time, this rubbed off on my mom, who read and loved Derek Walcott.  We went to Harbourfront to see him read and she waited patiently to get him to sign her book, not where writers usually sign books but on a page where her favorite poem was, instead.  He was grumpy about it, but did it, anyway. 



















2 comments:

Karl Parks said...

Amazing how many Pet Shop Boys' albums stalled at number two but delighted to see them rightfully restored to the essential fabric of the narrative here and elsewhere. I enjoyed your insightful track-by-track overview but I must say 'Only the Wind' always struck me as a chilling and fearful observation of the continual shadowy spectre of AIDS within friendship circles and also in the context of a relationship, something I also felt George Michael was deliberating with his anxious confessional, 'Spinning the Wheel'.

The imperial phase of the Pet Shop Boys is, of course, not entirely over but I think it's fair to say that the breathless quality control and relentless sonic and emotional boundary-pushing of their opening quartet of albums was fairly unsustainable. Then again, they had nothing further to prove after the melancholic zeitgeist of 'Behaviour'.

Please keep hassling publishers everywhere... this story should be part of the national curriculum for the best alternative survey of modern British history!

Best wishes to you both

Bob Stanley said...

Very happy to have you both back.

I always thought How Can You Expect To Be was about Bono? I was fairly certain they said that out loud at the time, and so it was no surprise when the Frankie Valli/U2 medley was double A'd with it.