The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Monday, September 02, 2002
THE CORTEGE: AN AALIYAH TRILOGY

Part 1: Birth

It is, of course, retrospectively one of the most frightening beginnings to a record ever. Out of an atonal electronic fog, a bell tolls. A voice calls: “Aaliyah, Aaliyah! Wake up! Heh heh (she smirks – Mingus: “there were flames a’blazin’ – I saw the Devil with his grin”). You’ve just now entered into the next level –” continues Missy Elliott in her only lead vocal in the intro on One In A Million, the second album by Aaliyah. Of course, what she means is (as she climaxes) “-into the new world of FUNK!” a quantum leap from her 1994 debut Age Ain’t Nothin’ But A Number (an adequate if average slice of by-the-rote mid-‘90s R&B; exactly the sort of thing you’d expect from a juvenile paramour of R Kelly). What we now selfishly interpret it as being is an augur of what actually did happen five years hence, rather than the crudely signposted transition from youth to young woman that it actually was.

And Timbaland is now on board (albeit only for 8 of the album’s 17 tracks). If One In A Million is to be deemed the most influential record of the’90s, the justification lies in three of the first four songs on the album, all Timbaland/Elliott-written/produced/arranged. “Hot Like Fire” burns slowly but sensuously as no other mainstream black pop was doing at the time, with the exceptional male exception of D’Angelo. But if the latter is the Picasso of nu-soul, then Timbaland is the Rothko; endless spaces of differing degrees of colour, heat expressed as coolness. You can be simultaneously turned on and refreshed. A keyboard fragment which on its own could have been lifted from that unrecognised template for all subsequent pop music, Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Vol 2, is blended exquisitely with the undemonstrative yet clearly offbeat beat. The Fairlight-mangled squeals of the 17-year-old which take the track out.

Then, above all, the title track “One In A Million,” the track which made possible all pop architecture which came after it, from Britney to Beyonce; and yet what seduction its successors have lacked. “Your love goes on and on and on…” (a refutal of Lydon’s “on and on and ON!” suicide note in PiL’s “Theme”). There is humility in Aaliyah’s voice, an eagerness, a curiosity which is yet to be overwhelmed by recognition of one’s real role in society. A blissful ignorance of what waits in her future to harm or uplift her (those subliminal squiggles which surface, almost naively, right at the end of the fadeout).

But not for long. Others have commented on her completely dispassionate and almost a-emotional vocal delivery on “If Your Girl Only Knew.” She certainly views the subject with indifference verging on hate (or is this all hiding an essential love?). The possibilities of the man being “left alone” and the other woman “cursing him out” although she is “crazy to put up with you” do not seem to work up any passion in her at all. He’s another option, I depend on me – but listen to that angular Portishead organ chord which surfaces at 2:34. Doubt!

Or maybe she’s just playing with options. It’s difficult to assess because, unfortunately, the album then descends into an exceptionally grim and dull succession of identikit and utterly conventional ballads; all too typical of the absurd formatting into which most R&B albums still fall. The only animation comes in a “Billie Jean”-drum track driven reworking of Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up” – in that tortured and incomplete man’s original version, another addition to the strange “depersonalisation” of 1977 pop. Gaye is scarcely on his own record, almost reluctant to make himself known above the party noises (as opposed to his very evident need to be heard on “What’s Going On?”). When he swoons “this is such a groovy party” over the almost unbearably poignant chord changes in the middle eight, he seems ready, like Camus, to vanish into the text and reappear only if you (or Anna Gordy’s lawyers) will him to do so. Aaliyah (with Slick Rick’s additional pep) spices it up and makes herself the cynosure of the whole song, thereby altering its emotional state entirely. Apart from that, though, it’s R Kelly-land by the numbers, even with the Timbaland-produced ballads, the latter of which are distinguishable only by the strange little details which Timbaland and Elliott put into them – listen to the unexpected backing vocal harmonic notes halfway through “4 Page Letter” or the first appearance of the four-drum “falling down the stairs” effect on “Ladies In Da House,” echoed by Aaliyah’s brilliant “p-p-p-playa” vocal aside, with Timbaland’s salivating Greek chorus (sonically, almost a B-boy Orson Welles!), the off-kilter guitar chordings, the strange mid-synth wobbling, Elliott’s closing rap a hall of mirrors in itself.

She had a lot to learn. So she went away for five years. Well, why not, she’s in for the long haul…

Part 2: Death

…except of course she wasn’t.

No it wasn’t intended as a memorial album. The damn thing had already been out two months before the plane crashed. And now it’s hard to look at it as anything other than a death album, because that is how we, as simple-minded consumers, assimilate works of art without the untidy business of actually caring about the people who created it.

The sleeve is blood red, for a start. Well, OK, more orange if you look at it in the daylight. The way she raises her sunglasses on the rear booklet shot to look as though blood is coming out of her forehead. The pose on the satin sheets whilst cradling a snake. Anyone can make five out of two plus two if they’ve a mind to do so. I will stay with the unutterable sadness of looking at pictures of a growing woman, still maturing, but with no more maturation to come. Cut short. That’s all you get. Don’t tell me how sad that is. No need to tell me. None at all.

And I will stay with the sheer frustration at knowing that the eponymously-titled third album by Aaliyah has grown to be a very, very great album indeed. Timbaland largely absents himself this time round, responsible for just 4 of its 15 tracks (one of which, “Try Again,” had already been around for a year apropos the Romeo Must Die soundtrack). Concerns that Missy was getting most of his innovations are immediately tempered by the jaw-dropping first track and first single, “We Need A Resolution.” Ostensibly vaguely Middle Eastern in its general ambience, the escalating keyboard staircase is more reminiscent of the ghost of Bach pounding the aisles in the capricious caverns of Koln Cathedral. Representing something that is no longer there…even if it’s only an affair. “I’m tired of arguing, girl” smirks Timbaland. But this is a galaxy leap from anything on One In A Million. Conflicting arguments rumbling around in her head; self-doubt as well as accusation of the other: “You’ve got issues/I’ve got issues (background ad lib: “ha, YOU’VE got issues?”).” The crisis of the self: “Am I supposed to change/Are you supposed to change/Who should be hurt?/Who should be blamed?” The almost backward incantations of “where-were-you?” Rather crassly adopted as a harbinger of 9/11 (again, after the event), possibly due to the similarly warped lyric “What-was-in-your-head” which some misheard as being “World wars in your head.” Well, if that’s what you choose to want. It is a skeleton rattling around in a song. It redefined the parameters of pop, and we’re only just realising it. “Revolutionary Road” set to music. Note, incidentally, how Timbaland’s “cut the crying, cut the coughing, cut the wheezing…” is echoed and counterpointed by Aaliyah’s “no more”s on “I Refuse” at the other end of the album.

“More Than A Woman.” How desolate and forlorn can an apparently upbeat pop song be? The squirt bass (and you need to brush up on your Miami Bass history to understand where that originates from – try Dave Tompkins’ superb Primer in this month’s Wire) set against deliberately tinny, early-‘80s synths; the Scandinavian sadness of Spears at her finest (after all, what are Max Martin’s songs if not the logical fruit of the essential despair underlying Abba?). She’ll be more than a lover. All the promise which cannot possibly be fulfilled. Even if the singer hadn’t been killed, you just KNOW that something is going to go wrong from the contours of the song alone. It can make you feel more alone than any other piece of music.

Producers Bud’da and Rapture take care of the rest of the album. “Never No More” would in less pliable hands be an utterly routine ballad to go with the half-dozen ones on One In A Million, but the punctum here is provided by an unusually close and impacting drum track; like little emotions exploding from each side of your head (this is definitely an album which requires headphones).

The astonishing “I Care 4 U,” another Timbaland work. The self-obsessed dispassion noted in “If Only Your Girl Knew” has disappeared. Now the voice caresses. The man has been hurt – she is offering him her life, her love, his salvation. Truly the word “baby” in the lyrics points to the sort of love she wants to give him, the maternal care he needs now, more than ever, and I am driven to thinking of

Sam Taylor-Wood

“It’s just that there are a lot of highly distressed, lonely and anxious people in your work. There’s not much happiness.”

specifically her 2001 video piece Pieta, in which she is seated on a set of steps. She is cradling an apparently dying and nearly lifeless Robert Downey Jr in her arms. On closer inspection she is in fact carrying him, suspending him in mid-air. The physical difficulties of doing this are obvious, but she is intent on doing it, and her face betrays no tiredness, pain or effort – just limitless compassion. I stood in the Hayward Gallery in April 2002 with my sometime lover, watching this, and realising that this was fundamentally what I wanted – salvation, care, compassion, the deepest and most selfless love imaginable. With the pain of the last twelve months I have the desire to be the carried rather than the carrier.

because it is a hymn of compassion.

That having been said, it would be wrong to take the lady for granted. In the next track “Extra Smooth,” powered by an almost vaudevillian descending melodic segment, as if Fagin’s about to pick a pocket or two. “He’s got big brown eyes/so he built lies/comin’ on strong/six pack showin’/he’s too cool for his own shoes.” Or to put it another way, that don’t impress her much, but the lack of impression is more impressive than that of Shania.

An increasing scepticism makes itself apparent in the bossa nova hoedown of “Read Between The Lines.” Interesting to note how more sophisticated the adoption of bossa nova is than, but how unchanged the sentiments from, something like James Chance and the Contortions’ “Disposable You” from 21 years previously. By the time of “U Got Nerve” the turnaround is complete. “You took my kindness for some kind of weakness” (an exact echo of Isaac Hayes’ “Phoenix”). “Who do you think you are now?” exclaims the chorus. “Your qualities are less than pleasing,” Aaliyah opines, dangerously close to Beyonce-land. “Get your skeletons out of my closet!” The rhythm track punches like a demon (that crematorium organ is still there, though, buried in the furnace of the mix) and this would in itself count as a superlative electroclash track.

Next comes the self-consciously epic “I Refuse,” lyrically more or less a parallel to Blige’s “No More Dramas” and a “November Rain”-type epic, starting with thunderclaps, quiet synthesised flute and piano. Slightly too smug in its own recognition as a “major” piece, this builds up rather predictably and is only saved by J Dub’s asymmetrical rhythm patterns (horses’ hooves?). When the squealing guitar makes itself dimly apparent on the horizon. The synth orchestral crescendo is slightly reminiscent of a House track without the rhythm…obviously striving for “I Will Survive”-type immortality, but it just tries too hard and ends up with a bump next to Enrique Iglesias.

The subsequent ballad “It’s Whatever” is relieved only by the carrot-crunching rhythm – yes, we’re essentially back in ballad hell. “I Can Be” picks up a little, but again the guitar crunches grate – you really want this song to, er, beat it. With the regretful piano chords, this actually might have worked better as a straight ballad. But the Neptunes really have negated this whole thing. “Caught Out There” this isn’t. Now she is happy to be the girl who “if she only knew.” “I can be the other lover in your life” she now pleads. Guitar and bass undulate accordingly over a looped “all right” though this suddenly ceases. So she’s not convinced.

“Those Were The Days” is a goodbye song with what is now back to a dispassionate vocal; it actually sounds as though it were punched in syllable by syllable. Note, however, the “those were the day-ay-ay-ays” hiccup which parallels and reflects “p-p-p-playa” in “Ladies In Da House.”

And then, an extraordinary finale which actually justifies the use of the guitar on this album. Out of some Oval-style electronic burping comes what is, it has to be said, a Killing Joke guitar chord (“Change” I think), emerges the climactic song (and original album closer) “What If.” Here J Dub and Rockstar wipe out the memory of “I Refuse.” The words here are scarcely audible under the stammering thrash (piccolo synthesiser mimicking the upward guitar scrawls) though they seem to constitute another “Caught Out There”-type scenario. Looking at possibilities of love, of life, searching increasingly frantically for some kind of order – and then Aaliyah suddenly exclaims, with audible relish, “We’ll burn you! We’ll gut you!” It isn’t quite “You’re Holding Me Down” but as an exit to a record it is despairing and undeniably nihilistic, beyond revenge or redemption. Her voice finally merges with the guitars and synths, one identifiable howl. Brief Morse code synth at the fade out again. The end?

“New friends were often invited to pause at the National Gallery, to inspect Guercino’s “The Incredulity of Thomas,” a painting whose fascination he found inexhaustible. He had no time for the church and its orders of service, still less for the history of religious schism, which merely exasperated him; he preferred to argue out his need for faith in private. Most religious imagery he found too sentimental; yet this single pictorial moment seemed to satisfy him. As he admitted, a believably strong Christ was one of its attractions. For Williams, visions of personal redemption, whether religious or emotional, involved his being gathered up and made safe in someone’s arms. It seems never to have happened to him in life.”
(Russell Davies, from the Introduction to The Kenneth Williams Diaries)


There is a trapdoor, though sadly not for Aaliyah, in track 15: “Try Again,” added on to the album as an extra. It does the song no disservice to say that this was one of the greatest singles of 1982; if the Human League or Depeche Mode had indeed come out with this in 1982, it would have caused a sensation. Bookended by a reminder of one of the most etiolated pop records of the last 20 years, Eric B and Rakim’s “Follow The Leader,” Aaliyah is urging her potential lover to keep his options open. If she doesn’t want to be kissed or fucked at their first date, just keep on trying. Let things develop. You’ve got a chance. Don’t rush me. Don’t be fooled by my apparent lack of passion. It’s there; it just needs the right key to unlock it.

Strange how she should have died after shooting a video for possibly the least distinguished song on the album, the very routine “Rock The Boat.” Her suitcases bulging with jewellery were too heavy and brought the craft down; the ‘plane was substandard but cheap; there are any theories but no resurrection.

Or was there?

The 38-year-old widower sits, quietly sobbing, in a deserted churchyard in Oxford on a balmy late summer evening. It is getting dark. He has been there for some hours. He has returned out of choice, to try to clear his head of the demons to which he has now been tethered for a full 12 months. He wants to be under the soil, not necessarily under her soil, but just under some soil, some solace. Or water if no soil is forthcoming. Music is as distant to him at this moment as London, or love, or life. However, he slowly makes his way back to the main road at Headington and embarks on the first coach back to London. It was his choice. It was his bravery or cowardice. How does resurrection make itself apparent to eyes still blinded by grief?

But just suppose. After one had gone, another came. Someone who almost chose to exit this world voluntarily, rather than, as Aaliyah had done, accidentally or neglectfully. Someone whose first public statement tells you exactly this.

Part 3: Resurrection?

It starts with a blissful sighing vocal/electric piano/running water reverie, and the voice rises out to speak freely, as though to enter into a new world:

“What to say? I remember when it started – and the exact time it ended. My life was in shambles – so much commotion and no place to mend it. A handful of pills and a Plan B. I wanted nothing to do with life or what was to become of me. I loved no more. Every door shut, I felt, I heard. I just wanted to sail away, float away…to the sounds of a Southern hummingbird.”

This is the voice of Charlene Keys, otherwise known as Tweet, and this is how her debut album Southern Hummingbird, produced by Timbaland and Missy Elliott, begins. Edging her way nervously out of the abyss, she settles into the surrender of the first song proper “My Place.” A ballad but with distant guitars and closer rhythm chewing away at its roots, waiting for love, welcoming love, pleading for love to come her way, to give her an excuse not to devour these pills.

“Smoking Cigarettes” continues the mood of languidity, though it is rudely subverted by Timbaland-style squelch bass, punctuming the lament like gigantic commas. He is gone and she needs him back to stop her committing suicide by means of lung cancer. A pack a night. But this is the opposite (i.e. interesting) extreme of balladry; this comes from a seductive deep soul as opposed to pleasing the scrubs with convention. Unhurried but always compelling. Al Green explores your punctum. Never screeching. Whispers can be so much louder sometimes. This is what a good slow soul record should be like; its meanings much more elusive to tease out, and therefore more rewarding (and it is about more than just using recognised signifiers; consider her namesake Alicia – I don’t think they are related, but correct me if they are – who certainly has assembled all the signifiers in her music, but there is no signified. Therefore, by definition, it is less than worthless).

“Best Friend”? Now HERE’S a song. A best friend of the opposite sex, always there – “we can talk about anything, that’s why I love you.” A male voice (one Bilal) steps in and concurs. They want to take it further. Their combined falsettos express what words cannot. Oh this is ecstatic in its peace. A point which Aaliyah, for whatever reason(s), never quite reached. “Let me LAA-HAY-HAY with you!” “You give me REEE-A-SON!” Stretching notes out to poeticise emotions. Deep soul and free jazz were never that far apart.
(Does this song have relevance to my personal life? Well, how can it not?)

Next track is “Always Will,” the theme of which seems to be love surviving at a distance, even though (although never explicitly stated) this is the same love affair about which she lamented in “Smoking Cigarettes.” But can the open-minded listener not interpret their own lives in such words. “We can be on separate planets, Mars and Venus/Heart to heart, no space is between us.” I suspect that Ms Keys is engaging in an exercise of self-denial, desperately trying to convince herself that they have the chance of a future.
(But of course it means something completely different to me…long distance friendships, thinking the same thing even though seas and situations may keep us physically separate, spiritually and emotionally we inhabit the same Winter Gardens photograph).

It’s time to go uptempo – “Boogie 2Nite.” She is looking for a party and is looking to pull a partner. That desperation is still evident beneath the superficially lively surface. “Are you READY?” she repeats with increasing intensity. Who knows where this could lead? “Ten Cents A Dance”? (The Hawking-like mechanical intonation “move your hips side to side.” Keys says the word “dance” as if it were to be followed by the words “on my grave”).

But she doesn’t manage to grab a partner – she gets back at quarter to three in the morning and is so desirous of stimulation that she manages to stimulate herself on the single “Oops (My My)” on which Missy cameos as her Other; appropriate as musically this is a decaffeinated “Get Ur Freak On” with sample muezzins oddly reminiscent of prime Art of Noise. She gets pleasure wherever and however she can. Certainly this knocks the Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself” into a cocked hat.

“Certainly he seems to have treated masturbation as a considerable play-acting performance, and often a lengthy one (he provides occasional timings). In the imaginative passion of the moment he evn caused himself superficial injuries on more than one occasion. His moments of extreme narcissism, too, will surprise and enlighten those who have always found difficulty in understanding why a synonym for masturbation should be “self-love.” In Williams we see someone who – and this in middle-age – is capable of being so captivated by his own image in the mirror that he must resort at once to “the barclays.” This is self-regard of a rare order…”
(Russell Davies, from the Introduction to The Kenneth Williams Diaries)


There is a strangely retro, minimalist early-‘80s feel (Sharon Redd?) to the track “Make Ur Move” in which Keys is still trying to attract a man. “Tell me what your name is/Damn you should be famous.” But it is still to no avail. She is left alone with her acoustic guitar for the bitter song “Motel” where she witnesses what we assume is her ex going into a motel and enjoying sexual relations with another. Keys shuts the door on the past. “Go to hell baby,” she purrs. “And furthermore, you dummy, the proof was laying in your pants.” A sardonic reference to “Rappers’ Delight” passes in the breeze; more reminiscences of times irretrievable.

Then, in the piano-driven ballad “Beautiful” she appears to have found someone, “I have received a love that’s so divine/So innocent and so pure.” But again it’s not made clear whether this is a reality or merely her wishes projected onto the studium of everyday existence. From the next track “Complain” it would appear that the latter remains the case. “I can sing about love lost – but what if there’s no love to lose?” But then again, she still wants the man back, regardless of everything. “If I had you back, I wouldn’t complain at all.” “If my friends were dead and gone, leaving me here alone/Could I depend on some spirit to ease me when my soul’s on its own?” As with the beginning of this album, her life remains at stake.

But no no no (and not Destiny’s Child’s “No, No, No” either). A heartbeat starts. The song is “Heaven.” An ECG machine ticks. An enormous trade wind of steel guitar slides. “Loving me means more than losing you,” she declares. The previous song talked of the relationship’s good points; this song reminds us (her) of the bad points which outweigh it. It’s a sunny day, but the music belies the apparent “freedom,” full of glitches, lining her path like emotional landmines. “Definitely heaven!” she urges us, but can she convince even herself?

If we are to treat this record as a concept album – and there’s no indication why we shouldn’t – I would deduce from the harpsichord-powered song “Call Me” which reanimates some trademark Timbaland tricks (“Get Ur Freak Out” meets “Strawberry Letter 23”) she is sleeping with “her man” but conducting an affair with another, who can give her what the first man cannot. It is unclear which of these is her ex, but from the promise to do some “reminiscing” we can deduce that she has shacked up with a new man but still seeing her ex on the quiet. The sexual promise seems so bloody joyless.

(Alternative explanation: this is a flashback and the real reason for their break-up – her cheating on him?)

And so it proves joyless. A great gulf of strings plunges us into the distended finale “Drunk” which seems like an end to a self-deemed unworthy life. Backward voices sweep in and out like vultures, waiting for the “broke and alone” deserted woman to expire. The exact reverse of the intoxicated bliss of something like Earthling’s “I Could Just Die.” Everything gently drifts out of focus. Marvin Gaye wandering along the beach at Ostend, utterly alone. “This loneliness is killing me…The road’s all lopsided/I only drove a small way.” Reality used to be a friend of hers. “Now my air’s being pumped/And I’m drenched in my tears.”

Then the credits roll. Suddenly joyful, she takes a bow and does her Academy Award thanks over a reprise of the opening theme. But it doesn’t erase what may well be the bleakest end to an album since “Box For Black Paul” helped Cave’s From Her To Eternity stumble to its self-appointed close.

(There are two bonus tracks, “Sexual Healing (Oops Pt 2)” and Elliott’s own “Big Spender,” but they are scarcely relevant to the emotional tenor of the rest of the album, although the former may be a belated reassertion of her faith in love and life. Both excellent in themselves; just out of place, like adding “Wrote For Luck” as a bonus track to Closer).

Envoi

Be patient. You are asking, apart from the involvement of Timbaland and Elliott, what exactly does Tweet have to do with Aaliyah? I am merely asking for an extension of your belief in a good story. I am asking you to believe that a less dispassionate but perhaps more damaged woman arose in the space previously occupied by a far more confident woman and that the song “Drunk” is a belated Kyrie to both their lives, still arising out of the most fundamental vessel for the expression of human grief and suffering – the 12-bar blues – but removing it from its casing of aspic, rather than venerating the casing and blocking out any vision of the actual heart. Or perhaps it’s that life carries on under any circumstances. Perhaps I am yet again merely trying to extend my own experiences to make these works of art fit my perspective. For ultimately our own perspective is the only one which we can properly acknowledge – and why we get so incensed and defensive when other perspectives from other people come to question or overturn our own perspective.

“The Hegelian dialectic was a full-blooded affair. If you started with any partial concept and meditated on it, it would presently turn into its opposite; it and its opposite would combine into a synthesis, which would, in turn, becoming the starting point of a similar movement, and so on until you reached the Absolute Idea, on which you could reflect as long as you liked without discovering any new contradictions. The historical development of the world in time was merely an objectification of this process of thought.”
(Bertrand Russell on Dialectical Materialism, from Freedom and Organisation 1814-1914, chapter 18).


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