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

Monday, December 16, 2002

If Phrenology used its own selected “Roots” to thrust itself, through arcane knowledge, into the future, then Electric Circus, the second and greater album by Common, asks us to consider what that future would look like. As with the Roots, Common looks back to unexpected elements of history – the vision of the future which he constructs is ostensibly more straightforward than that of the Roots, though on closer examination it turns out to be a subtler uncertainty.

The cover, with its Sgt Pepper-style collage of collaborators and influences – though with the deep blue sky of dusk replacing the sky blue sky of dawn – indicates that we are back to a concept of omni-inclusive psychedelia, though its aesthetic arms stretch out wider. Certainly Electric Circus comes across as a more sober, but also deeper, counterpart to Stankonia – the stoned dislocation of the latter is still in evidence, but the belly laughs and surrealism are left in the background.

The album begins with a disconsolate music-box tinkling a lament, over which two members of African troupe Zap Mama offer a tribal chant. So this is confectionery, but with a history. A brief percussive flourish leads us into “Soul Power” an on-beat (and thus undanceable) canter through an environment which is far from decided (as signified by the sudden momentary deceleration a third of the way through).

“Aquarius,” as you might expect, stretches back to the halycon late ‘60s/early ‘70s aspirational vocal harmonising of the likes of the Fifth Dimension, Rotary Connection and Three Sounds (and, lest we forget, the Carpenters). It is still the dawning of a new age, if we want it, though the uncertainty is still delineated by the gradual de-symmetry of the vocals, becoming disparate and unclear (a trope which is repeated at strategic points throughout the album). Then we suddenly jump from the Fifth Dimension to Country Joe, with the so-meaningless-it-means-everything chant of “Electric Wire Hustler Flower” (half enticing/paradisical, half threatening/demonic), the vocals led by POD’s Sonny (“In Demons In”?). “The Hustle” is not a threnody for Van McCoy/Studio 54; rather a drunken stumble which becomes more disengaged the further it progresses, its very Clintonesque vocal lines (lead vocals here by Omar and Dart Chillz) bumping against a synth bass reminiscent of an imperfect (and therefore better) Eurythmics.

“Come Close” is the first of two Neptunes-produced tracks, and it’s a seductive duet with Mary J Blige. The male progenitor here is a reforming pimp who wishes to make absolutely clear his commitment to the Other, and his uncertainty is greater than that of Blige, who is perfectly happy to surrender to his trustable love (even though, as he warns, “this love might hurt a bit”). A wonderful forgotten 1974 shimmer of a ballad with “Pacific State” chord changes. If there’s going to be a number one single off this album, it’s this.

Next we go into “New Wave.” The duality of this particular track is particularly striking; the verse is driven by a hurried rhythm and toccata-esque organ lines as if Common’s running to escape an unspeakable urban nightmare, but as soon as we get to the chorus, the flowers suddenly blossom, and – what a stroke of genius – we are presented with the welcoming postmodernism of Laetitia Sadier and what sounds like the rest of Stereolab with a typically blissful chorus (Sadier’s the only one credited here, but all the band are pictured on the cover and are clearly present on the track. I wonder whether this is a sample – Laura was the Stereolab expert and would have been able to tell you).

It is initially hard to get over the fact that peering over Common’s right shoulder on the cover is the now deceased Mary Hansen…also 36 years old, also cut down in her prime by means of brutal accident. We have lost some big names this year.

Back to sexuality, with the track “Star ’69 (PS With Love).” That parenthesis might have dissuaded Serge Gainsbourg from contributing to this track, were he still with us, but this is a blissful ascent/descent into millennia, not just moments, in love. Again the Utopian soul templates come to one’s mind – I’ve quoted them often enough before, but here think of the Four Tops’ “Still Water” and Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend” (complete with varispeed, gender-defying vocals). It goes out to swim in a sea of unidentifiable bliss – the Stylistics meet the Cocteaus.

Other “realities,” however, have to be taken into account, and the second Neptunes track “I Got A Right Ta” is a surprising trek into late ‘60s Blues Boom territory – Richard Pryor does Canned Heat. Here the singers (Common and the Neptunes’ Pharrell Williams) defend their right to get high over a nicely dirty groove that wouldn’t have been amiss on Jim White’s last album.

And then, a devastating track – for me at least – “Between Me, You & Liberation.” Initially we would appear to be returning to the sexual ocean of “Star ’69,” but the lyrics belie the music’s seeming becalming nature. Here the Other was raped as a child, hooked up with unsuitable/violent partners; but the two enjoy a brief year of bliss before – you guessed it – she gets cancer. And Common takes us with brutal honesty through the details of her gradual decline and death. It would seem that no matter what I do, no matter where I turn, something (whether it’s music, a work of art, or just an overheard conversation in the street) is going to remind me again and again of the horror. But that’s the deal with Electric Circus – you cannot grasp the true bliss of utopian fantasies without first being thoroughly aware of, and involved in, the dirtiness and grief which are components of reality.

From there, we make another unexpected turn into “I Am Music.” A Dixieland ensemble is on hand (shades of August Darnell) to back the track’s irresistible pop-ness. Guest singer Jill Scott here sounds uncannily and bizarrely ike Sarah Cracknell, and indeed the whole track has an ambience not completely unlike that of Saint Etienne – another group of selective archaeologists who unearth remnants of a forgotten/forgettable past and reconstitute their elements to pave the road towards the/a future.

We have two epics to end. Firstly, “Jimi Was A Rock Star” with Erykah Badu giving a career-best performance on vocals. Yes, it’s a tribute to Hendrix, and could easily have derailed into Lenny Kravitz Sidings, but this is blistering stuff which builds up from its anthemic opening chorus to freeform defiance of gravity – phenomenal performances here from Jeff Lee Johnson on guitar (who is superb throughout the whole album) and Dilla on Moog synth, who fly and howl around each other to take the whole track into outer space, though anchored by the steady vocals (this, incidentally, underlines the aesthetic link between Hendrix at the pop/avant border and Pharaoh Sanders at his peak, where songs/chants disperse into orgasmic atonal noise eruptions – see “The Creator Has A Master Plan” off the latter’s 1969 Karma album for cast-iron proof). The finest Hendrix tribute song ever (and a word, by the way, about, of all people, Pino Palladino, who plays bass throughout – he certainly has atoned for those flanged Paul Young years).

We end with could in other, easily identifiable, hands have been a mawkish farewell – “Heaven Somewhere.” Beginning with Common musing over the fate of a friend of his who seems about to go to prison for an unspecified crime, he wonders “just how hard is it to do right?” His “friend” advises perusal of Matthew 24. The song then goes into considerations of heaven and goodness, the future of man, etc., with a massed chorus including Blige, Scott, Omar, Bilal and Badu. Again, however, just as you think that this is going to become a hip hop “We Are The World,” the vocals again step out of phase, become disconnected, come at you from all directions – there’s even a cameo from what sounds suspiciously like Prince, the basic influence behind the whole record (indeed, in the cover collage, he is allotted #1) – and the music again articulates what they are really saying. It ends with Common’s dad musing on his idea of heaven – playing with his grandchildren. On that benevolent note, the track, and the record, fade out, leaving us with the music-box we heard at the beginning. Children will continue to be born; life will endure; there are trees in this city.

Little, if anything, on Common’s previous album Like Water For Chocolate could have prepared us for this absolute classic of a record, one which fits in very well next to Phrenology. Hear and absorb them both over the holidays. Albums of the year? Well, more about that later this week, but for now think about the fact that in 2002 we have had two masterpieces of the negative (Fantastic Damage and American Supreme) which have now been counter-balanced by two masterpieces of the positive (Phrenology and Electric Circus). To quote that other great pop visionary Neil Innes: “There are no coincidences…but sometimes, the pattern is more obvious.”

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