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

Friday, October 11, 2002

I bought The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill four years ago after it was ceaselessly recommended to me by my erstwhile sister-in-law. I gave it a couple of very cursory listens, then filed it away but never got rid of it, figuring that I might get the point of it at some future stage. Why was I sub-enthusiastic about it? Many reasons, few of which were to do with the actual music. It annoyed me that Lauryn Hill seemed to have become the hip-hop equivalent of the Police. Senior readers may recall in the late '70s how every mottled rock dinosaur - McCartney, Jagger, Ted Nugent etc. - when asked what their favourite new wave group was, they invariably replied the Police. The safe option. The veneer of fashionability without the need to get one's nails dirty. And again, largely with the same suspects, Lauryn Hill was the hip-hop business. The Fugees never really crossed my radar - true, their extremely freeform take on "Killing Me Softly" on TOTP was one of that programme's highlights, but the records never cut my wires. And of course, the legions of lame Lauryn wannabes who have followed in her wake. Readers, if you want to know the other, tormented side of being a paid music critic, you need think no further than the prospect of sitting attentively through an hour of the new india.arie album Voyage To India (it's a journey into herself! D'you get it??!!). After 59 minutes of remorseless remonstrating I had to clear my ears with Oxide and Neutrino for the remainder of the evening, just to un-cleanse myself.

But life is a series of re-evaluations of your own opinions, as well as new discoveries, else it is not worth having. So, having listened to it afresh, I am here to tell you that The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill is a pretty awesome record.

It is structured loosely around a classroom scenario where the "pupils" attempt to pin down and extrapolate on the meaning of "love." So the approach is the equivalent of that used by ABC on Lexicon Of Love (all secondary to A Lover's Discourse, natCh), and as with that monolith there is supine beauty and sumputousness in the arrangements and production here. As well as hard hits. "Funny how money changes the situation!" Hill sneers for her opening gambit on "Lost Ones." A dub canyon of echoes amplifies her delivery, reminding me laterally of Alan Vega. It is a call for redemption of the self: "You might win some but you just lost ONE."

The brilliant ballad "Ex-Factor" takes its cue from the same askew glance at "The Way We Were" which underlines Wu-Tang's "Can It Be All So Simple." A marching rhythm sounds like mourners trampling on gravel, followed by dirt being thrown onto the coffin. This is an admonition/plea to the Other to live life as opposed to platitudes, forcing him to retract cliches and manifest some kind of reality instead. The verse parallels confirm this: "No one loves you more than me, and no one ever will" followed in the next verse by "No one hurt me more than you, and no one ever will." Then a sonic duality (hers and his) of chirping birds and sudden tympani opens up the prospect of Hill "letting you back in" while she simultaneously demolishes him demolishing her: "You hurt yourself to make me stay." And then the extraordinary double-time climax, where she climbs to a crescendo of desperation - "You said you'd die for me - WHY DON'T YOU LIVE FOR ME?"

I'm surprised that the next song "To Zion" hasn't been press-ganged into that nitwit Republican's list of conservative Top 40 hits; as with Paul Anka's "You're Having My Baby," it's an ode to not aborting a child (which, however, does not make it anti-abortion) - hear Hill singing about how "I touch my belly, overwhelmed by what I haven't chosen to perform." She is waiting for a "manchild" to be born (Neneh Cherry!!!!) and is willing to put her career on hold for this to happen. That marching rhythm appears again, with her repeated scream of "MY CHOICE!" echoing through your soul.

After this release, burdens are lifted. "Doo Wop (That Thing)" was a GREAT summer single, with its reggae horn lines and its jibes at feckless men - it's like a JA "No Scrubs" though stops short of epics like Lady Saw's "Life Without Dick" (truly the latter is the Millie Jackson of dancehall).

The next song "Superstar," which may or may not be a jibe at other Fugees, is wrapped in a cocoon of blissful harpsichords and cascading harps and flutes, as is much of the second half of this album. The atmosphere very strongly recalls the utopian soul of the early '70s - think Curtis Mayfield''s "We've Got To Have Peace," Gaye's "Wholly Holy," think the Stylistics' "People Make The World Go Round." The lyric, though, is astringent and subverts "Light My Fire" - "Come on baby light my fire/Everything you drop is so tired/How come we ain't gettin' no higher?" This tirade against thoughtless celebrity again culminates in a double-tracked, out-of-synch rap climax wherein she ends up storming over "10,000 chariots." The same blissful orchestration winds its way through the regretful "Final Hour" (with the guitar line sampled from No Doubt's "Don't Speak"?). She goes on to explore the bipolar emotions felt in relation to the Other in "When It Hurts So Bad" (the payoff being "why does it feel so good?") over a tremulous Chris Isaak-type guitar lick.

The whole album then climaxes, emotionally, with the shattering "I Used To Love Him" (the payoff here being the throwaway "now I don't"). "He was the ocean and I was the sand." Is she exultant in her rejection of him, or in crossing over "to Zion" is she mourning the death of desire? Backing harmonies remind the listener of a hopped-up Andrews Sisters, while the punctum is provided by the repeated 1-2-3-4 hammering of a discordant note (steel drum? plucked harp?) throughout the track, showing us the real despair.

The JA feel comes back into "Forgive Them Father" where Hill chuckles her way through the Lord's Prayer, particularly in terms of "trespassing." This is quickly followed by her "how-I-came-to-be-here" autobiographical song "Every Ghetto, Every City" delivered with relish over a storming clavinet-driven funk track with some immense beats (the punctum here is where she reminisces about "Saturday morning cartoons and Kung Fu" and this is followed by a little, almost indiscernable David Carradine-style whoop - pure joy). With "That Thing" this is the most straightforward feelgood track on the album.

Then D'Angelo comes on board for the song "Nothing Even Matters" and it's as if we've been transported onto a different planet. Listen to the genius of the man's arrangements on this song - those finger snaps which are not regular and whose accents constantly appear in unexpected niches, always unbalancing the listener deliriously). That right-angled bass squelch. When D'Angelo pleads, "I sometimes have a tendency to look at you religiously," in his best, most expectant Al Green falsetto, sex becomes holy, passion pantheistic. Unlike outgoing, hysterical soul duets exemplified by Bobby Womack and Patti Labelle's "Love Has Finally Come At Last," this expression of passion is almost being drawn inwards by Lauryn and D'Angelo, they are contracting the space in which their intimacy must thrive, they are drawing the whole world, sex, love, you, into their corner. It is breathtaking.

The album then tails off slightly; there's the too obvious "Que Sera Sera"-type catch-all approach of "Everything Is Everything" (though the monolithic synth chords allied to the stomp sound almost like prototype-Britney/Stargate!) while the title track (and there is a slightly irritating tendency for Hill to refer to herself intermittently in the third person throughout) floats on a cushion of piano and strings. Despite below-par lyrics in the order of "I look at my environment and wonder where the fire went" and the overly pat conclusion that the point of her existence is to "define her own destiny," note how the strings are slightly acerbic and non-vibrato, that non-tempered semi-Asian tonal feel which you find on records like Archie Shepp's Attica Blues and Don (father of Neneh!) Cherry's Relativity Suite. There's always something there to entangle you.


There are a couple of strictly not too necessary hidden tracks on The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill; a pleasant but unexceptional ballad called "Tell Him" and an interesting but rhythmically thwarted attempt at "Can't Take My Eyes Off You." Must admit I find it hard to choose between the Frankie Valli and Andy Williams "originals." Valli had the hit in the US, Williams in the UK thanks to his TV show of the time; and the two versions are almost polar opposites in their approach. Though both white, Valli's version (also used to good effect in the opening bar sequence of The Deer Hunter) seems to me the "black" version (rhythm far harder, horns far punchier, the "I love you baby" climaxes more keenly felt) whereas Williams' is the "white" version (everything laid back, in the middle distance, effortless seduction). I love them both, though.

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