Tuesday 28 January 2014

YAZOO: You And Me Both

(#284: 23 July 1983, 2 weeks)

Track listing:  Nobody's Diary/Softly Over/Sweet Thing/Mr. Blue/Good Times/Walk Away From Love/Ode To Boy/Unmarked/Anyone/Happy People/And On

"I came from a small town and in school at one class there was me, a member from Depeche Mode and someone who went on to join The Cure.  That was all in one class of 30 kids." - Alison Moyet

Pop music works best when little, if anything, is premeditated; when no one seems to know what is happening, risks are taken and few if any managers are around to polish up what happens.  Alison Moyet and Vince Clarke, both from Basildon, knew each other before the success of Clarke-era Depeche Mode, and so when Clarke left them - as he didn't like the dark edge that Martin Gore was bringing in - he phoned Moyet and they recorded a demo.  Moyet had been in various bands in her youth, but Yazoo, as they were called in the UK, got from that demo to Top of the Pops in a month.  The incredible speed of Yazoo's career meant they were wildly popular and unprepared for that popularity; Clarke wanted to break up their partnership after their first album Upstairs at Eric's went huge, but his publisher and Moyet convinced him to do one more album, the highly ironically titled You And Me Both.

I say ironic as they had effectively broken up before recording it, him doing his synth work in the morning, her coming in at night to give the bleeps and blips some physical grounding, her contralto the exact opposite of the clean electro sound Clarke likes.  By this time they were avoiding each other, not collaborating on songs (only "State Farm"* is credited to both) and Moyet chose the cover photo of snarling dogs as a representation of how they were - such was the volatility and tension surrounding this album.

And yet it doesn't sound as strained as Synchronicity does, in part because Moyet and Clarke were separate and their gifts didn't exactly need the other's presence to emerge in full flight.  Clarke's melodies and harmonies are bright and dramatic, pop as influenced by OMD ("Electricity" was his eureka moment w/r/t synths) and The Human League and John Foxx;  Moyet being the Janis Joplin/chanteuse of Basildon, willing to take these songs - hers and his - and make them close, intimate, felt.  This is the complusive sweet/salty combination that is tough to pull off (the Eurythmics' Annie Lennox comes close, but her chill gives a different dimension, and different possibilities, in contrast to Moyet's shadowy warmth).  The album alternates between Moyet's songs and Clarke's, with Moyet beginning the album...

"Nobody's Diary" starts off with a curling and beckoning feeling, tentative, and with Moyet's lyrics, a desperate and demanding one.  She is there with so much to say, but can say nothing (shades of how I will feel five years hence, though I can't imagine it in the hot summer of '83).  A relationship reduced to nothing but paper and ink; as if it were not pleasure but business, cold and impersonal, a state Moyet can't accept.  "Your gonna be mine for a long time" she sings to herself, unable to think of a thing to say to her Other, the happy and the sad both in the past for both of them, though she has hopes of winning him back (dubious hopes though, with "perhaps" and "maybe" showing she knows there's no use). 

"Softly Over" is Echo calling out, waiting for some kind of answer - "understand me, can't you hear me call" - and this song glides and pauses and aches with a longing, quiet spaces punctuated like walking in snow, everything somehow sharp and soft at the same time.  It is this tough quietness that Moyet does so well, and Clarke's mournful patient music matches her.  Clarke understands his instruments as well as Moyet does her voice.

"Sweet Thing" is a leap into hi-energy, Moyet giving in to her Other, who seems to be leaving her, yet her "ooh!" at the end of the chorus suggests that she will have her day - her confidence makes this not a song of being abandoned but one of  triumph, anticipated and eagerly longed for, over her Other.  She may be submissive to him, but her I give "IN-IN-INNN-INNN" at the end hints that she knows if she submits then things will improve.  "You were laughing at me the whole time" she sings, but her own laugh is never far away, not bitter, just confident.

"Mr. Blue" (nothing to do with the song by The Fleetwoods) is a pretty song about loneliness, hesitating, hymn-like, compassionate.  It is a moving song about grief - death appears, and not for the last time, on this album.  An old man slowly dies, a man is abandoned, with only a letter from her by the bed, "a child's life is never long" - Moyet sings it with authority (I have to keep reminding myself she's just 21 when she recorded this album) and tenderness; it is a far better expression of universal suffering than, oh, "King of Pain" could ever be.

"Knocking For A Good Time" is a video-game-synth workout of funk, somehow utterly tacky and adorable at the same time.  Moyet sings it with gusto, tired of being alone, she wants to be "a part of it all and all right here - and now."  Her "Whoo!" is one of joy, even as she describes herself as "A BARGAIN HONEY!" who is a "giveaway" - she is beside herself for that good time, to belong, to fit in and be valued.   Her laugh near the end is like a rough wind ruffling your hair, brusque and friendly at the same time.  And the tape ran until her actual laughter appears, happiness in the midst of the tension around the rest of the album...

"Walk Away From Love" is the single that never was (as in it could've been one, maybe if they'd stayed together it would have been) - bright catchy and forward, skipping along in a "Just Can't Get Enough" way.  The verses are about her adamant need to walk out, the chorus is the response from the Other, telling her that she is still loved and isn't the Other's love enough?  Moyet sings both straight - perhaps it's her Other telling her these things, or perhaps her conscience?  It is an Erasure** song in all but extra oomph, clearly pointing to what Clarke will be doing in a little while....but for now...

"Ode To Boy" is the stand-out Moyet song, a quiet blues about a boy she knows and obsesses over, whom she cannot stop looking at - his hands are so feminine they are "almost American" and he is out drinking and then at the end weeping, not knowing she is watching..."in awe of his despair" as her fascination turns into love, his lips and hands and if he "caught her looking" he quickly forgets. He is caught up in his own drama, his face seeming to change and age as the song progresses, with Moyet near-whispering her observations and sensations.  It is a song Henry Green would understand, moving in the dark, the "And when he drives I love to watch his hands" sensuality that puts us right there.

"Unmarked" is a Falkland war song in all but name, Moyet's voice mean and contemptuous as she talks of all of war's falsities, "We were proud in them days" and "Even Jesus cheers us on/Against the other side."  Clarke's song is clunky and blunt, but then prettiness isn't needed when the song ends with more death - "I'm glad 'cos all I wanted/Was to kill another man" - the grotesque need come to light, the song ending abruptly, fierce as it is...

"Anyone" is an astonishing song, the narrator's life full of sadness - lost love, the flowers shadowed and the dead leaves waiting, but in the dark...and the song yearns with her for something beyond a place where "I can find no light/My goals are out of sight"...."fate" seeming to hang over her doomily, the tide taking away her Other, her purpose in life...in this darkness she closes her eyes and can "be anywhere" and "be anyone."  I call this astonishing as Moyet sings it as if this is her escape, not a destructive illusory one but one of freedom.  This could be a secular gospel song, the tension rising and then dissipating with her "surprise" of not whee-hee joy but an unexpected satisfaction.  The imagination is that powerful and arrives just when it is needed...

Now then - "Happy People" has to be one of the least interesting songs that I've heard during Then Play Long experience and that it was such a bad song Moyet wouldn't sing it - it's sung by Clarke - makes the case for it to be part of the slowly-growing Worst Songs From Then Play Long songbook.  The people are self-satisfied and happy, the song's la-la-ness emphasizing just how dull and nothingy these happy people are, and not unless you are a completist do you need to hear it. 

"State Farm" is, however, a whole different thing.  This is Essex geek funk, and immediately I can see b-boys breakdancing to it from NYC to Detroit to Chicago to LA, and Moyet and Clarke finally work together on a song, gears click in, breaths and yells of "GO!" and sizzling wobbling synths loop and beat in time like nobody's business.  Moyet's freestyling here (there are no printed lyrics in the booklet) are badass, "Souped up jacked up cracked up stacked up" and "And don't it make you feel good" and "Puts the liquor in his stomach and the powder up his nose," her "that's right" sounding like a testimony, a satisfaction of a different sort from the Tears For Fears-primal scream method of release. "You're a bad stain and you need to be cleaned up!" Moyet judges as the synths clappity-clap and generally ggg-get-down (boy) get down.  I feel sorry that this isn't on the UK version of the album, but had to be found on import; it is a necessary moment of relief before the closing song...

"And On" is a spooky song, and not least because - was it just sitting there in the corner waiting to be used? - a Fairlight synthesizer is the main one here, as opposed to the Yamaha DX7 and whatever else was also available.  It is also spooky in that death appears here as something that the narrator approves of...well, not approves of, but has already absorbed, understood.  The setting is a funeral, the "thousand raincoats" reminding me of (with some inevitability - how long will this shadow fall?) of Joy Division.  The narrator stays as everyone, including the grieving parents, has gone away.  "I'm so glad that your life stopped now/Before it had a chance to die" seems mean at first, but the lines "They didn't even understand you-No!/They didn't even try" suggest that this deceased person - the Other? - a friend? - was beloved of the narrator but misunderstood by everyone else.  "I ran my fingers through the long grass/Willing it to turn into your hair" is again sensuous and sad, the narrator touching the earth, sitting by the grave for a long time...and this is the real moment of grief that anyone who has felt it knows..."Expecting to turn and see you there."  This too ends suddenly, the actual death drawing an end to the album, the existential death of the person - a living death - avoided only by an actual one.  

The utter straight-forwardness of this album - there are, even with the last song, no frills and a sense always of huge urgency from Moyet - make me sad that Yazoo didn't continue to make more music.  There is something uncompromising and tough about it, about how it confronts sadness and death, together with a profound value on what counts in life and how (again, as with Tears For Fears and Wham!) two Gen Xers view the world in quite a different way from their elders.  That good time seemingly belongs to others but will belong to them; there is drama here, sure, but it is never drama for its own sake but empathic, moving.  (No wonder Antony and the Johnsons count Yazoo as an influence.)  Nothing is fake here, not even the now-antiquated synths sound not just cheesy but (dare I say it?) haunting.  In the heat of '83 this is a nighttime album, one for pausing and contemplating, just as much as it is for defiant whoops of joy.

Next:  children are father to the man. 

*The US version of You And Me Both's replacement for "Happy People"; more anon.

**Amazingly enough, or perhaps not, Alison Moyet also knew Erasure's Andy Bell from school days. It is indeed a small world...