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

Thursday, November 07, 2002

The above is part of Daniel Bedingfield's sleevenote to his debut album Gotta Get Thru This. Like all pop albums worth a damn these days, the album is about the desperation of the singer for you, the adorer, to love him, to let him in; but what is expressed here is of a different order to Justin Timberlake's appeal for us to let him grow up (and nearly everyone else who has reviewed Justified has, typically, missed the point, in other words that he "can't sing" because his voice is still breaking, he is still trying - the emotional sweep of the album would be meaningless if he sang like D'Angelo). Gotta Get Thru This - as the sleevenote's multiple dedications to God make clear - is about a crisis of faith. Superficially the theme is extrapolated from that of Sinatra's "The One I Love Belongs To Somebody Else." The Other already has another Other - perhaps even another idol (Gates? Young?). It's a marketplace, and Bedingfield wants you to spend your money on him, devote your spare time to him, rather than on Will or Gareth.

Do looks matter? Daniel's are more rough-hewn, "realer" than Justin's. On one of the sleeve photos he is eyeing himself up in what looks like a bedsit wardrobe mirror - eyes deep set, carefully nurtured stubble. You have to work at this guy; he isn't just a bit of rough.

The pop music enclosed within, however, could only be British, could only have come from 21st-century London. The song cycle starts with admirable awkwardness - the Other is leaving him. "Blown It Again" is the song. He frets over his faults, he laments his shortcomings against a skeletal hip hop backdrop with sudden crashing piano chords which seem to be falling all around him like demented debris. Space cannot be taken for granted. He has "gone and lost his one true friend" through not trusting her, because of course he cannot trust himself. Guest rapper Solid Rock invokes South Mike Skinner said, it's too late.

"You can't live a life if you don't ask why/Such a thing as too much information/Trapped under this condemnation."

"Either life is a series of significant discoveries or it is not worth having" (Max Harrison in The Wire, Christmas 1986, regarding Larkin's All What Jazz)

He's on his own now. Back in his zone. Flashback to the beginning?

"James Dean (I Wanna Know)" might be the year's best, certainly its most determined, pop single. "I could be the James Dean of the music scene" (echoing Coati Mundi in "Me No Pop I") and then, strangely. "I could be a big star/Like that man Queen." McQueen? Mercury? The Stranger? Its post-Cameo beats are brutally efficient, like sticks of celery being slapped against a pantechnicon; his vocals are exemplary, pointillistic, growling when he needs to; he's putting on an act. So much space in this song, just like its ancestor, "Rock On" by David Essex (and the latter's extraordinarily warped series of pop singles between 1973-76 needs to be re-evaluated urgently). Hear his uncertain vibrato on the word "Queen." Observe how the whole track steps up a gear when he makes his desperation apparent in the chorus: "I wanna KNOW!" with an intermittent three-note bass synth Dies Irae punctuating his sweats - because the punctum was at the end of each verse: "if she can't seem make it worth my while/then WHAT'S THE POINT NOW?"

("oh what's the bloody point?" - final words of Kenneth Williams Diaries)

It's the record George Michael should have made six months ago. No, scratch that, he could never have sung this. Because Daniel has a choice, and he opts to "make music till my brain is fried." No love on the horizon, need to do something or else die. He is facing up to the possibility of music being a substitute.

("from deep soul to symphonies, they're all substitutes" - Momus "Closer To You")

"Gotta Get Thru This" demands that we tell Daniel who he is. Beyond even the multi-mirrored narcissism of Jackson's "Who Is It?," we observe how Bedingfield's vocal is tweaked up to resemble a female, to resemble a pan-sexual satyr, just like "Camille" in Prince's "If I Was Your Girlfriend," amongst the most holy of music ever made. It's a prayer to see him through until tomorrow when he will . . .see her again. He won't be able to do anything except "pretend that you're already mine," or is he planning to lay his cards on the table to her, to present himself as an alternative and better option?

The next two songs "If You're Not The One" and "He Don't Love You, I Love You" (note the significant absence of the word "Like" as a bridge between the two parts of the latter title) are musically the most mainstream things here, but their intelligence (and indeed inclusion of discernible melody) elevates them high above the Blues and Abs's of this world. The former finds him clawing at his brain, trying to delude himself that he's not in love with you ("why am I crying on my bed?" "why do I dream of you as my wife?"). The faith expressed in this song is absolute; he is committing his entire life to her care ("I wish that you could be the one I die with" - his vulnerability and rapid breathing circling "die" are enough to inspire a little death in themselves). "Is there any way I can stay in your arms?" he asks politely, plaintively, like Oliver asking for some more, please sir. Or, as My Computer might have phrased it, "I don't care how you treat me." Just don't ignore me.

In "He Don't Love You, I Love You" he opens himself up to you, tells you that he doesn't want to build his world around you, doesn't want to have your children - Gareth Gates is a false prophet, I am the way, the truth and the life. But at the same time he's asking the Other to deny his feelings (though really he wants them confirmed) - "Tell me you're not what I know you are." Prove me wrong. It's unproveable.

The silence which follows "Tell me to silence my heart."

Then, surprisingly, we segue into a pair (everything on this album comes in pairs) of purposeful guitar-driven, almost New Wave, tunes, albeit still with a 2-step rhythm supporting both. In fact they both sound astonishingly like the Police (an unexplored link between Stewart Copeland's polyrhythms => speed garage?) and "I Can't Hear You" is essentially a pun-free, smugness-free rewrite of "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da." He is trying to communicate with the Other but is far too nervous; words, emotions come out as a jumble, and her heart is protecting and defending her against all of it. "I wish that you could see/The other, BETTER parts of me" - but of course he's not sure whether he DOES have any better parts of himself, or whether that in fact is all that there is.

"Friday" is an exhilarating cartwheel of a song whose unstoppable impetus - like the cork stopping Sting's bottle getting ready to spurt out - is worthy of the Police at their best. "She's coming back on Friday" goes the chorus. He destabilises himself with his own expectant ecstasy ("the clock says it's half past five/but the sun is still in the sky").

Then we get the big ballad, "Honest Questions (Plains Of Asia)." Now Bedingfield wants you and I to justify his own life for him. "The lives I've lived/The deaths I've died/You died them too/And all for me." The diminishing returns in direct proportion to the volume and certainty of his voice when he sings:

"Do you see a brighter day for me?

Another day?

A day?"

He wants you to protect him against his own "eternal blindness," "the whispers in my heart against your kindness." What he wants from you is made clear in the chorus: "I will pour my water down/Upon a thirsty barren land/And streams will flow from the dust of/Your bruised and broken will grow, you will grow." On the sleeve this chorus is printed in inverted commas. It's what he needs you to say to him. Turn my tears into life. Consummation = holiness. I must cling to you. Do I love you?

"Girlfriend" is ostensibly perky, upbeat post-Jacko pop where he seems to have won the Other over...but even here there is darkness. "You gotta be the one for me or else life makes no sense/So wrap your arms around me/Kiss me till I'm dead." I actually don't want to live. Can I stay and be nothing at all? I depend on you. I am a parasite. I cannot exist independently.

"WIthout The Girl" repeats the 2-step of "James Dean" but this song is much more straightforward - the one he loves does indeed belong to somebody else, and he is content for now to wait and see whether she will one day come to him as more than a friend. It looks as though he has reached a comfortable compromise with reality.

But wait...

Twist the mirrors round. See the distortion which has suddenly arisen. See the real, inedible underbelly of what Bedingfield has been saying all along.

"INFLATE MY EGO" is the title of the climactic song where he trashes all illusions and faces up to whom he really loves - himself. "There's no way I can feel about it/'Cause I don't even know how much I love her." One fatal step beyond "Just My Imagination," it has ALL been happening in his head. "I consider you so expendable," he cackles in the chorus, "I don't need you/My whole world revolves around me/INFLATE MY EGO!" A brutal candour rarely encountered in pop, bolstered up by the backing track being a beefed-up version of the Peter Gunn Theme, played with an awful euphoria. Indeed it reminds us of the genuine ecstasy of the opening section of Soulwax's 2 Many DJs, which opens with a wedding being ELP's version of "Peter Gunn" and Basement Jaxx's - well, it's appropriate for Bedingfield here - "Where's Your Head At?" - but here it's drained of all joy; you are faced with hard facts. Hear his "thank yous" to an imagined audience which sounds more like the wrong end of a wind tunnel.

(The whole song of course, from his vocal downwards, could also easily be a parody of Robbie Williams)

After the apocalyse, the reckoning: just Bedingfield, his acoustic guitar, and a restating of "Gotta Get Thru This," re-presented to us as a humble prayer to God to endeavour to help him to understand exactly how fucked up his mind is.

It's up to you to decide whether you want to take him on.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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