Friday 19 March 2021

2 UNLIMITED: Real Things


(#503: 18 June 1994, 1 week)


Track listing: The Real Thing/Do What I Like/Here I Go/Burning Like Fire/Info Superhighway/Hypnotised/Tuning Into Something Wild/Escape In Music/Sensuality/No One/Face To Face/What’s Mine Is Mine/Nothing Like The Rain


“Every song [on the album] is a potential top 10 record,” raved a man of no importance, reviewing Real Things in Smash Hits, adding that: “for techno…mayhem, you can’t beat Real Things.” At the same time, the NME decided that it finally liked 2 Unlimited and gave this album 8 out of 10.


Typically, the music press prefects got on the act’s case one album too late (see also, in the nineties, Mercury Rev and Destiny’s Child inter alia). No Limits should have received the above glowing notices, and Real Things can only be considered a gross disappointment in comparison. It gets off to a decent, if not too thrilling, start, with some cat-and-mouse bits of toccata business, but it soon becomes very apparent that PWL International were right to leave out, or cut up, Ray Slijngaard’s raps on the previous record; a little of his stolid wordiness goes a very long way.


The album is otherwise anaemic. Disastrously, Messrs de Costa and Wilde appear to want to have put away childish things and progressed, and so the beats are underbeaten, the pace is all too leisurely, the productions too reticent; it is hard to view Real Things as anything other than standard off-the-peg early nineties Europop songs with glutinous rapping appended. Two-and-a-half years hence, the Prodigy’s “Breathe” will musically sound a little like “Burning Like Fire,” and the dancehall and ballad forays are in exactly the same place as they were on the record’s predecessor.


Overall, however, it is studium pop all the way; dull, clich├ęd and probably already sounding dated in the week of its release. As far as dance music was concerned, it wasn’t even 1993 any more; the circus had moved on and suddenly they found themselves to be 2 Actually Quite Limited. As for potential top 10 records, the single of “The Real Thing” peaked at number six, and the subsequent two singles, “No One” and “Here I Go” at numbers 17 and 22 respectively. They have not been remembered, and neither were Anita Doth or Mr Slijngaard, who in 1998 were summarily replaced by two thoroughly anonymous Dutch session singers. I fear this is not the only occasion in 1994 when people who ought to have known better boarded the dance bandwagon after it had fled the arena.


(This is, however, the last post for a while as Then Play Long is now taking an extended Easter break. We return on 6 April with an album which took fifteen months to get to number one. Buona Pasqua a tutti.)

Thursday 18 March 2021

SEAL: Seal


(#502: 4 June 1994, 2 weeks)


Track listing: Bring It On/Prayer For The Dying/Dreaming In Metaphors/Don’t Cry/Fast Changes/Kiss From A Rose/People Asking Why/Newborn Friend/If I Could/I’m Alive/Bring It On (Reprise)


Bring what on? “Take me to that funky place where you and I were born,” he sings. Perhaps you don’t need to ask what “it” is, or if you do need to ask, you’ll never know what “it” is. In the liner note to his second album, Seal amiably explains why he does not print the lyrics of his songs on the sleeves of his records. As with Gilbert O’Sullivan, you get the feeling that he's happy with any interpretations of his words, even if they are “wrong” – for O’Sullivan, the Everly Brothers will always have sung a song about an Irish guy named Cathis Clown. “How many times have you fallen in love with a lyric that you thought went ‘Show me a day with Hilda Ogden and I’ll despair,’ only to find that it went ‘Show me a way to solve your problems and I'll be there’?,” he asks.


It's a fair question, and one of the key questions here – if you view the second Seal album (or, if you go by the Peter Gabriel way of doing things, his second edition) as nothing more than superior dinner party music – is: how strange and unsettling must be a dinner party soundtracked by the words “I compare you to a kiss from a rose on the grave”? Then you search online for other people’s interpretations of the lyrics and find “I compare you to a kiss from a rose on the grey.” Your guess is as good as, or better or worse than, mine, I guess.


For many years I imagined he was singing “To me you’re like a pocket dictionary I apply” but actually he is singing “To me you’re like a growing addiction that I can’t deny.” Love is the drug, and all that. What do I know? Don’t answer that.


You may be relieved, 340 words into this piece, to be reminded that Then Play Long’s primary focus is not on lyrical analysis – there’s plenty of that to be found elsewhere. In any case I think I know what “Kiss From A Rose,” a song Seal wrote back in 1987 when he was broke and living in a squat and which he says he was embarrassed to show anyone until he pulled it out and played it to Trevor Horn while preparing his second album (shades of McCartney and “Yesterday”?), is about. It receives a treatment as fulsome as that which Andrew Powell had given to “Sebastian,” a song which Steve Harley had initially busked on guitar, twenty-one years previously.


Whether that treatment – oboe, strings etc. – is ascribable to Anne Dudley or Wil Malone is not really clear; in the credits of what became commonly known as Seal II, the musicians – some famous, other session stalwarts - are simply listed by name alphabetically. It doesn’t really matter, you see, who is doing what, or where or when; it is the overall picture of the record which Seal wants you to grasp.


What are we meant to grasp? The album’s bookending with “Bring It On” implies a song cycle, and indeed the record plays like one slow, patiently-building meditation on – well, it’s up to you whether this is non-specific emotional centrism or what it truly means; since you are not Seal, the best you can do is guess in the hope of gaining minor empathy.


The songs – or perhaps we should treat the record as one long(ing) song – flow naturally into and from each other. There is an etiolated beauty but also an underlying grievous uncertainty. In terms of the sheer perseverance of its patience, this album might properly belong in a late sixties/early-mid seventies British world of Five Leaves Left, Tumbleweed Connection, The Road To Ruin, One Year and Kid In A Big World (Trevor Horn gained some of his early studio experience working with John Howard and Biddu); a quietly radical dissertation on, or dissection of, what we perceive to be emotion and how we manage to cope with it, handle it and direct it towards a hopefully mutual recipient (or indeed a direct forebear of Seal II, Labi Siffre’s 1972 album Crying Laughing Loving Lying – see in particular the song “Fool Me A Goodnight”). When Joni Mitchell drops by, and drops into Then Play Long for the only time (unless a fiftieth anniversary edition of Blue manages the trick – how could Seal not have known that record?), to add some vocals to “If I Could,” the dovetailing is natural and logical.


Or perhaps simply consider Seal as a benign uncle to Michael Kiwanuka. Seal II, if you misread one potential subtext too deeply, might have been titled Tomorrow’s The Night. “Why must we dream in metaphors?” the singer cries amidst the album’s most moving song. Yet dreaming requires daring. And there is a major, concealed daring in the superficially placid grooves of this record; what, Seal tells us, is going to bring “it” on but “unconditional love”? This means opening yourself up, discarding received notions of yourself and everything around you, and learning to trust. “How will I paint this garden I've destroyed - green?,” he rhetorically demands in “People Asking Why.” Because, he suggests, it is nowhere near too late for any of us.

Wednesday 17 March 2021

ERASURE: I Say I Say I Say


(#501: 28 May 1994, 1 week)


Track listing: Take Me Back/I Love Saturday/Man In The Moon/So The Story Goes/Run To The Sun/Always/All Through The Years/Blues Away/Miracle/Because You’re So Sweet


If you fancy yourself as a music writer, the acid test isn’t tackling one of the “big” records. Instead, try having a go at evaluating the sixth studio album by Erasure. That should sort out the determined from the just pretending.


What I would say is that a lot of this record is devoted to worship of the bucolic, the natural order of things. Its cover depicts a tinselly wonderland, full of forests and castles, and in the far distance, the heads of Andy Bell and Vince Clarke, barely above the water; it is impossible to discern whether they are swimming or drowning.


What I Say I Say I Say could be is an unusually elegant, not to say elegiac, Erasure record. Much of its music floats rather than impressing itself on the listener. Songs such as “Man In The Moon” and “All Through The Years” nightswim with balletic patience. Even its uptempo songs – “I Love Saturday,” “Run To The Sun” – are comparatively restrained, and not without bitter subtexts; the payoff line to the former is the rhetorical question “Did I try to deny we would fall apart?,” while the latter offers a brief impasse of dissonance just before the phrase “It’s not that I’m ashamed.”


These ten songs may be thematically linked – there is an undercurrent throughout the record of a love spent, then lost, then painfully recovered, such that when we reach the hymnal “Miracles” there is a palpable sense of redemption (as underlined by the accompanying choir). But its general tenor is the advice to slow down, observe and wait, and also to love the real world of nature which is surrounding, or should surround, you.


Martyn Ware produced, which may explain why the album is more Sheffield than Basildon; there is far less camp and much more seriousness. “Always,” an unexpected Billboard top twenty single, is classically structured, flawless pop, but also a song sung with a maturity that would have been unreachable for Bell even five years previously. On “Take Me Back,” with its subtle lyrical nod to “Nights On Broadway” (“Trapped in a world full of strangers”), and “Man In The Moon,” Bell’s unexpected mezzo-soprano kisses the brim of androgyny like few singers since Klaus Nomi. Yet this approach also permits the sense of absolute, elated deliverance exultantly expressed in “Because You’re So Sweet.”


The album’s most striking moment comes with “So The Story Goes,” which gradually diverts from its initial premise to a kaleidoscope of polytonal choral lines and gruffly-spoken recitations with a sense of adventure that recalls the Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark of 1981 and 1983. My feeling is that Vince and Andy had probably realised that their imperial phase was over, and thus they were free to do whatever the heck they liked. Their next, self-titled album, released in 1995, took this sense of experimentation further; Diamanda Galas is involved in places, and the overall mood is perhaps one of extending the implications of trance (in particular the work of The Orb). It peaked in Britain at number fourteen. They persisted and endured, however, and remain productive with an intensely devoted following. We will not hear from Erasure again in this tale, but their story is one of friendly persistence. They have kindly not left the stage.