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

Wednesday, February 22, 2006
NEIL DIAMOND – CAN YOU BELIEVE HIM?

Is it only me who feels a little nauseated at the alacrity with which Leo Sayer is currently chasing his own ambulance? There is a record entitled “Thunder In My Heart Again” at the top of the charts, but it is credited to Meck, the hapless DJ who actually put the thing together; and while it is good that Meck should see the potential of what was already a great record, and while you wonder where he conceivably could have got the idea
from, it is unbecoming of Sayer to grasp this “success” with claws newly sharpened, and worse, to use it as a pretext to become a spokesman for something called The Campaign For Real Music, the man who owes his comeback to a track based on a radically rejigged sample of a 29-year-old song now absurdly crying for Real Music Played On Real Instruments With Real Spirit And Real Soul. Especially since the same man, when younger, delivered one of the bitterest diatribes against looking back as a substitute for living in 1973 – go past the hits and check out his debut album Silverbird if you doubt me.

So everybody gets older, but some have more sophisticated strategies to deal with it than others; even if, like Neil Diamond, you’ve constantly been denied credibility because of a very Sayer-ish shotgun marriage between naffness of dress and unquenchable sincerity of spirit, based in stupidity or in wisdom – it’s your shout. But then the best of Diamond’s songs – the escalating tubular bells which cascade into ecstasy “Cracklin’ Rosie”’s ode of undying love to a cheap bottle of wine, the genuinely uneasy truce between anguish and menace that is “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon,” the simple but telling emotional architecture of “Sweet Caroline” – are in my view every bit the equal of the best songs by Jimmy Webb, or Lee Hazlewood (indeed, “Song Sung Blue” might have been the work of an unusually happy Hazlewood – that same damn-you baritone razor drawl) but lose out on credibility because they are seldom anything other than optimistic or happy. Happiness is cheap to barter in the elevated pop-rock canon. Especially when mixed with that sincerity, and even more particularly when the sincerity is drenched in faith. Consider Diamond’s first big hit as a writer, “I’m A Believer”…

MONKEES INTERLUDE

To paraphrase Larkin, by 1967 the Beatles had won the world but lost the typists and the cloakroom girls in the Cavern. For everyone who thought that the Beatles were pushing envelopes as fast as they could be manufactured, there was at least someone else lamenting the loss of the cuddly, funny old Beatles, the ones you could sing along to and scream at on stage, as opposed to the crusty, unfunny new Beatles, the ones whose songs weren’t so easy to sing these days and don’t even bother touring any more, and if you ask me they’re getting a bit up themselves…and for all such people, Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson hit on the idea of bringing that old screaming magic back. Except that this group would be entirely owned by them with no opportunity to grow up and grow difficult; a television show recapturing the symbiotic daftness of A Hard Day’s Night (including a Genuine Brit!) but with all of the script already written.

It worked, if only temporarily; and then it worked for far more important reasons. Yes, Mickey Dolenz was the only Monkee present on “I’m A Believer” (if you don’t count some subsequent dubbed backing vocals from Davy Jones) despite Tork and Nesmith being more than capable musicians, but then Brian Wilson was the only Beach Boy present on “Caroline No.” And I’m afraid that if you plan to damn the Monkees, then you also have to say no to the Sex Pistols and maybe even the Beatles – all manufactured to a greater degree. The Beatles were a roughneck Toxteth bar band whom Epstein gayed up in Pierre Cardin collars. The Pistols were put together to promote a clothes shop and comprised a roughneck Shepherd’s Bush bar band who thought they were going to be in The Faces Mk II except McLaren hired Ornette Coleman as the lead singer. And certainly no pop lover worth their love would say no to a second of “Pleasant Valley Sunday” or “Daydream Believer” or “The Porpoise Song” or “I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone” – immortal records all, all written by hardened Brill Building professionals and performed by hardened veterans of Spector’s Wrecking Crew.

Or indeed “I’m A Believer.” From its dual intro of coy Farfisa organ and slightly more forward guitar (the latter very cleverly reorganising the chordal components of the intro to “A Hard Day’s Night”), Dolenz whispers his way into the song with his tale of previous woe (“Seems the more I gave, the less I got,” “Disappointment haunted all my dreams”) before a reluctantly ecstatic smile broadens his face and voice to intone “And then I saw her face! Now I’m a believer!” Now, this could well be another example of old gospel memes being translated into pop currency – yet, despite all the aura of manufacture, there is a strangely sweet and serene sincerity which shines through this record like an early summer sun in January. And the middle eight sees the singer growing into puberty – note the fuzzed-up electric piano pounding out the “Wipe Out” riff – before exiting in some kind of spiritual/carnal rejoicing. It’s like a renewal of pop.

Inevitably, if temporarily, the Monkees themselves won through; by the summer of ’67 they were playing on their own records, and via Dolenz were responsible for one of that year’s most avant-garde hits, “Randy Scouse Git” (a.k.a. “Alternate Title”). By the summer of ’68, Schneider, Rafelson and Jack Nicholson had decided to throw them into the sea (with Head) and they duly dispersed. But then, the killing irony lies in the fact that the money which these producers had earned out of “The Monkees” was sufficient to bankroll this film in which Nicholson was interested, about these two hippie bikers -–and thus the first unapologetically manufactured pop group literally paved the way for the opening shot in the second, gloriously independent golden age of American cinema (Repo Man, which Nesmith executive produced, is the meeting point where the two made their truce).

BACK TO THE DIAMOND

That Godhood persists in Neil Diamond to this day – on 12 Songs there are two curious numbers which deal specifically and not so specifically (respectively) with where the singer stands in relation to his creator. “Man Of God” is a straightforward gospel waltz, though some may blanche at Diamond’s assertion that “When I hear my voice, I believe that it’s His!” Whereas the less restful “Create Me” seems to be a prayer for God – or his unrequited love? – to will him into being.

Such tactics remind us that Diamond, whatever his songwriting genius, and however quiet Rick Rubin managed to get him in the studio, never quite shakes off the concept of the Big Idea, the Big Finish. Much of Diamond’s music would be unimaginable without the songs’ crucial Big-ness. So even on a quiet(ish) acoustic (mostly) album such as 12 Songs, Diamond can cut epics; most explicitly in two songs. Firstly, “Hell Yeah,” which you realise about halfway through the second verse is Diamond’s attempt to do a “My Way.” No “what have I become?” terminating anguish for Neil! No, he SAYS IT LOUD that it WAS all worth it and that he knows damn well he’ll be MISSED when he’s GONE. And despite all of this genteel grandstanding it’s still hard for my heart not to be touched in a silly, sublime way by his going up an octave in the final verse and screaming with pure joy that he’s “found the life he was after! Filled it up with love and laughter! FINALLY GOT IT RIGHT!!” Even though the concept of “getting it right” recurs in several of these 12 songs, that “FINALLY GOT IT RIGHT!!” pierces me like – well, like a passionate kiss of YES.

But Diamond can do tragedy as grandly as happiness, and thus the record’s big setpiece “Evermore,” which starts with some studio chatter – “Let Neil start it by himself” says Rubin in the control room and you immediately know this is going to be Cecil B DeMille. Up to a point. Nevertheless “Evermore” IS a great song, one which Roy Orbison should have been alive to sing, and while it might build up in a vaguely obvious way (i.e. this is something Bono would try, and get so NOT right) its “Bridge Over Troubled Water” assault (complete with Larry Knetchel at the piano!) is beautifully timed – and when the orchestra and timpani finally come in, it actually sounds organic, as though they performed it live, in the room; and there’s the crucial difference between something like “Evermore” and something like “Green, Green Grass Of Home” – on the latter, the strings and choir were tacked on gratuitously (but to what results! – the launch of an unfeasibly successful international career for its singer which four decades later still shows no signs of closing down), but on the former, they breathe symbiotically (not to say, of course, that sometimes the other way doesn’t work – Larry Fallon’s string parts for Astral Weeks were overdubbed, but the arrangements are so sensitive and generous that you still feel they are rising and falling in complete tandem with Morrison’s voice and Richard Davis’ extraordinarily singing bass).

But 12 Songs works best, I think, on a smaller canvas; thus the genuinely heartbreaking simplicity of “Save Me A Saturday Night,” which with its descending celeste seems to have come straight from an early ’66 Diamond session – hear how his voice falters carefully at the words “save me” and “baby”; the touching tenderness of the straightforward devotional love songs “Oh Mary” and (my favourite) “Captain of A Shipwreck” (“If you’re captain of a shipwreck, I’ll be first mate to your shame” – soundtracked by some lovely, delicate guitar from Mike Campbell which sounds exactly like the breeze of my fingers gently running through your hair), and – in complete contrast – the unapologetic sexuality of “Delirious Love”; even though the song is sung slightly regretfully, in the past tense, there is something truly majestic and subversive about 65-year-old Diamond exulting “I can feel it!” as Campbell (again) swoons his guitar into a lovely bend, like a renegade bedspring.

And there is also some mordant dark humour which almost conjures up Leonard Cohen in Rubin’s studio by mistake – the sneering “I’m On To You” which comes across as Lambchop singing Morrissey, with the Carla Bley Band in the background trying to play “Milestones” as quietly as possible, and its half-partner of a song to an uncertain (physical) lover “What’s It Gonna Be.” Eventually the whole thing bows out with the stoned bar-brawl shuffle singalong “We.” Thus 12 Songs is a fine record, almost despite itself (I’m not so sure about the straight-faced Sufjan Stevens comparisons though – there is a mournfulness which balances Stevens’ pranks, and Diamond doesn’t really touch either end of that particular spectrum), but catch that very angry statement by Diamond on the briefly harrowing eve-of-break-up song “Face Me” – “What is insanity if not a cry for the truth to be truthfully told?” Now there’s some Nietzschean pop food for your thought.

TIGA – SeXoR

There’s revivalism and there’s revivalism. Sometimes I think it simply comes down to which sort of revivalism we prefer as individuals, or the fact that we usually want to be reminded strongly of certain things and not at all of others. Take the new Tiga album (which, as far as I can tell, is unbelievably his first bona fide album as an artist). Every one of its 15 tracks could have been written, recorded and produced before 1989 – and that’s a big part of its charm. But what separates Tiga’s imagined ‘80s from those of the Arctic Monkeys? They’re both revisiting a past they never really lived through – but you end up with two entirely different stories. Two equally valid stories too, in my view; but then over the last month or so Tiga has been getting the lion’s share of plays on my stereo, and I cannot give a coherent critical opinion as to why this should be, other than his ‘80s speak more to me than that of the Arctic Monkeys; an ‘80s of steel cube synthesisers fit for idolatry, for distant, muttered vocals, for a Big-ness which might be the polar opposite to that of Neil Diamond.

Perhaps it’s Tiga’s extensive sleevenotes, from which I quote: “The past years have been very strange and hard and painful, experiencing the greatest loss and in the process losing a part of myself and watching some of the color fade from the world and wondering if life could ever shine again…” Well, then, it’s no wonder I keep going back to SeXoR, because even at its bleakest and gloomiest it still issues breaths of fascinating fire and (doomed?) futurism.

There’s always been something of the grievous night about Tiga’s music, and especially that trembling baritone of a voice of his, right through his imagined ‘80s of “Sunglasses At Night” and “Crockett’s Theme” – but here it, and he, make especial sense. So you could say that “(Far From) Home” in the first of its two versions is like a slightly more cheerful Air, or that its extended, insanely danceable reprise later on in the album makes me think of LCD Soundsystem with smugness replaced by humanity.

Also, as songs, the songs on SeXoR are immense; the shivering minor string synth chords which come in towards the end of “High School” and the ominous tenor monotone which underscores the wasted “Down In It.” Elsewhere, “You Gonna Want Me” and “The Ballad Of SeXoR” recall a reborn Human League (truly – I ended up singing along to them and found I sounded exactly like Phil Oakey! Oh yes…), “Pleasure From The Bass” is breathlessly enticing, and as for Tiga’s take on Public Enemy’s “Louder Than A Bomb” – well, he takes it down to an even more menacing basso profundo stream of conscientiousness which, set against the spiky West Cromwell Road electronics, actually sounds like the Eric B and Rakim of Follow The Leader meeting the Public Enemy of Nation Of Millions; and for personal reasons I don’t need to go into here, that kind of makes my today.

And then there’s “Brothers” which is so obviously a New Order wannabe – right down to Tiga’s guileless Sumner vocals and logical non-sequiturs of lyrics, that blissful chord change and even the Peter Hook suddenly-shove-your-arm-up-an-octave bass – that it comes close to overturning my entire critical viewpoint on music and its relationship to the past; that sometimes, even after all you’ve lived through (and all you’ve outlived), you just want to sit down and listen to an expert pastiche of ‘80s New Order. Except it’s Tiga, who clearly has his own story to tell, and that’s what keeps you listening. Right through to the extra track, the devastating “Sir Sir Sir,” which is like John Foxx’s Garden overrun by refugees from Renoir’s Les Regles Du Jeu (“And now I tend this hearth alone/And so take hold of these carriage reins/And drive me away”) with those gruesomely gorgeous descending minor semitone chords which conjure up the desolate Lanarkshire of that summer of 1981, just before I was to desert it for good; abandoned mineshafts set against brilliantined blue skies in the middle of the countryside, somewhere on the long road between Blantyre and Tollcross.

But then another excerpt from Tiga’s sleevenote, and a reminder of why I’m living in 2006: “…when I needed you most you proved yourself a million times over, and I will never forget. You are my world, and I cherish and love you so much, for never letting the lights go out and showing me that life still sparkles.”

I could not have said it better.


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