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

Monday, February 26, 2007
The last four notes of “Beyond The Sun” by Billy MacKenzie

It is now just a little over ten years since Billy MacKenzie ended his story, and I’ve recently been listening again to Beyond The Sun, a record which could most aptly be described as notes for a comeback album. There had been previous attempts at comebacks, but the material wasn’t right, or he wasn’t right; there are few more wretched examples of wanton waste of a talent than MacKenzie’s post-1985 (many would argue post-1982) work. But the Bloomsbury (and/or Beau Brummel?) end of Britpop suggested a way back in, or at least a rear entrance; Nude Records, home of Suede and the beyond-otherworldly first half of the second side of Dog Man Star, took MacKenzie in. Beyond The Sun is maybe the most noble of MacKenzie’s many failures; and yet there are points where his torch shines more purple and astonishing than ever.

There is “At The Edge Of The World,” for instance, six surreptitiously slinky minutes which reunited Alan Rankine and Simon Raymonde (thus spelling out the Associates-Cocteaus continuum for those who bizarrely had yet to realise it) at the end of which Billy does indeed appear to slip miraculously and seamlessly off the world’s edge. But the point where his heart reaches his eclipse is the record’s quietest track, the title song.

In his moving notes to the album – and he is always a great writer when he’s not trying to be a great writer – Paul Morley talks about the sensation that, with every atom of grace and torture he possessed, MacKenzie knew he was shortening his life with every note he sang, as though the power and energy necessary to generate those notes had a consequent draining effect on his dwindling inner resources. As a writer I have always attempted to take the opposing approach, as with every word I write I have tried - it turns out, successfully - to restore life to myself where otherwise there would have been none. But I can understand how draining it must have been for MacKenzie to starve himself of the oxygen of art by breathing it so generously in the direction of the rest of us.

“Beyond The Sun,” like most of the other tracks on the album, was co-written by musician Steve Aungle, of whom I know little else other than, presumably, he was a fellow Dundonian, not someone particularly obsessed with London and/or bigness. As opposed to Malcolm Ross’ sometimes intrusive guitar elsewhere on the record, Aungle leaves this song’s arrangement to piano and discrete synthesiser alone. He uses the divinely simple ascending/angelic modulations familiar to any student of John Barry (why wasn’t MacKenzie given a Bond theme to sing?), against which MacKenzie sings perhaps the quietest he ever sung on a record, whispering, breathing his…despair?

“There must be a pill/That can make you turn back/Far from this world,” he agonises in a hearthen hush. “Close to a violet spark” – Biblically, the illumination and subsequent banishment of the dark, but also an electromagnetic scope sometimes seen by the patient coming out of, or into, their coma. “Where are we going to?” he pleads as the piano climbs through even thinner, silver clouds. “What are we going to?/Help me to understand/Why others seem to plan/Their memories.”

It is simultaneously the coldest and warmest of torches, this light MacKenzie is still just about capable of carrying. “Beyond the sun/We’ll find a new eclipse/Treasured as one.” Does he plan to venture towards new life or irreversible death? With every pharyngeal tremble it is as though he is hanging onto the Earth by, literally, the skin of his teeth, biting into its Arctic grip for surface sustenance. “Help me to understand,” he finally asks, “While others seem to plan/Beyond the sun.”

It is a rare phantom blend of fear and anticipation, fear of deliverance balanced with eagerness for bliss; he could end in either euphoria or his own blood, as the piano never ceases to seesaw between settlement and displacement. Finally, as he relinquishes the global tug to journey into his own, remote, potentially breathable space, he gives those last four notes: “La-la-la-la”…holding onto the last “la” and sounding as close to open collapse and total, life-ending despair as he ever did, as though he were imploring us with those beaming eyes of his not to let him drift away, to catch him and bring him back, to stop him ending up like he knows he’s going to, to preserve that last drain of art in his last breath, his last “la,” cultivate it, let it grow into a new forest of wealth, in the full knowledge that he may never give himself the opportunity to breathe there. He spells his entire life out in those last four “la”s as the cosmos whistle like forlorn, surrendering angels around an orbit which may be ether, or just misspent vapours of ice cream.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .
Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Could we have saved Judee Sill if we’d been nicer to her, more open to and celebratory of her art? That was one of many thoughts which went through my head following the
latest semi-barbed critique aimed at music bloggers from a middle-aged veteran – and I’m a middle-aged veteran, so I speak with some authority– who reads me, or at least glances at me, eulogising Emily Haines and then accuses me of being too frantic, too hysterical, too anxious to be first on a non-existent writers’ block. Apparently we must be slower, more considered, less outwardly passionate, all so that we can save him wasting an evening going to a concert by someone I could have warned him against – if he really trusted me, which frankly at this late stage he ought to. I imagine that previous editors hawked the same distress signals over his furrowed head as he serially proclaimed, at a time when he was half his age and had double his enthusiasm, Was (Not Was) and Penthouse And Pavement and Dare and Sulk and Force The Hand Of Chance – and I am being extremely selective with his selection here – the greatest album ever made. Moreover, since I was around at the time and therefore qualify to attest, he was absolutely bloody right about every one of these. Should he have buckled down to Rationalist Neil and moderated his luminous blanket of hysteria? If so there would have been no ZTT, no anthologies of his writing, no monthly Observer Music Monthly columns which see him heading rapidly towards IMac martyrdom – he hasn’t yet said how damned are we who weren’t aged between 14 and 30 when Spiral Scratch came out (I was two weeks off my thirteenth when that happened, so I can attest that I shall truly never understand) but we’re waiting. Some of you might be, anyway.

But if you are LIVING through the greatest time of your life, then (a) isn’t it the only possible reaction, if you are a music writer, for you to eulogise and beam beckoning beams of semi-perpetual ecstasy, and moreover are you not uniquely placed to be the ONLY writer who can TRULY understand that music’s contemporaneous and future greatness?; and (b) who for a start said that such a time could only happen once in you life, when you’re young and fuelled? I can attest to being living proof that you can somehow survive into your fifth decade, despite having lost EVERYTHING and nearly EVERYBODY along the way, but then by some combination of magic, purpose and nature you can end up finding EVERYTHING and EVERYBODY again, even if it’s a different EVERYTHING, even though its constituents be exactly the same as the previous one, because even in terms of EVERYBODY it just takes that ONE PERSON with the key to open up your gate, defrost your windows and get you living again? Physically you might not have precisely the same degree of energy and tolerance as you would have done a quarter of a century ago – but here again, if magic and purpose and nature can work in the most sublime of ways, somehow that energy and tolerance can find their way back into your body, illuminating the soul, empowering the heart.

What’s the alternative? End up like Eleanor Rigby or Ian MacDonald, cloistered and shut off and already dead, living for – and worse, IN - a past which you can NEVER get back, and even now I decry living in the past as I prepare to talk about a near 34-year-old album by a woman gone from the world for over 26 years.

But there was plenty of moderation and impersonal box-ticking in those distant, unlamented days of the listed music press; I can’t recall Judee Sill being especially talked about, though undoubtedly she was mentioned, and interviewed, and her records reviewed somewhere, undoubtedly deploying words such as “solid,” “folky” and “nimble,” and she certainly did an In Concert for Radio 1, and appeared on The Old Grey Whistle Test, and I don’t recall a second of it at the time. She was one of many, rather than a more obviously approachable and identifiable figure like Joni Mitchell or Carly Simon, with their shrewder public shields and their rock star connections.

And let’s face it; even if we had been nicer to her while she was here, her music was not the type which announced its glory by bounding towards you and licking your face energetically like an over-eager Labrador puppy – to an important extent you had to go out to meet her music, to find it, to duel with it, to conjoin with it and to find your own meanings and mantras in its subtotally-defined heaven. Gradual pleasures were as roughly dismissed then as now; partly to do with the accursed turn-of-a-dime nature of music reviewing, when records have to be assessed NOW or what’s the point of releasing them, or leaving them for six months until you approach a definite verdict on it, by which time there has been no promotion, the record hasn’t sold, the artist has been dropped and staff at the pressing plant have been laid off? The idea of simply releasing a work of art, like a caged butterfly, into the wilderness and letting it find its own audience, or its own audience find it, remains anathema; look at the disgraceful treatment of Stef Penney in her recent ill-advised newspaper interviews. Many of us – self included – simply want our words and feelings to let themselves discreetly into the world, without having to do laborious interviews or pseudo-cordial bookshop tours to people who will never know us, or particularly want to know us; and so eighteen months after I started building this Church, readers from all over the nooks and crannies of place discovered it, commented on it discreetly, and then it travelled eight thousand miles until it found its desired and ideal Reader.

But you know all that, and I’m supposed to be talking about Judee Sill here so let’s get on with it. The first album was reasonably promoted and she got her name about to a certain lowish level, but it didn’t particularly sell, despite being the first release on Asylum Records. Some say that Sill torpedoed her chances by making wisecracks about David Geffen – remarks about his “pink shoes,” or worse, calling him a “fat fag,” and we turn our heads away from that particular strand of militant Christianity with some difficulty. However, they clearly believed enough to bankroll a second album – and with a collective personnel involving the likes of Spooner Oldham, Louie Shelton, Jim Gordon, Doug Dillard and their not-exactly-base-rate ilk, as well as the expanded orchestra (which Sill herself is portrayed as conducting on the inner sleeve of Heart Food), they were not yet ejecting her into the bargain basement.

Heart Food is now regarded as Sill’s masterpiece, I suspect largely on the basis of its two admittedly overwhelming setpieces. But close listening betrays the uncomfortable truth that, although it is a more “musical” and professional-sounding album than its eponymous predecessor, that doesn’t necessarily make it a better one. Indeed, there are several suggestions within its grooves that Sill was perhaps already running out of ideas, and with these two startling exceptions, to which I shall come presently (and there may be a partial third), her general approach here is disappointingly conservative.

This play-safe policy manifests itself most strongly in the trilogy of songs which return to her old theme of the lonesome rider who may be cowboy, or may be Jesus, or may be her Other. In addition, despite her noted vibratoless vocal style, she does incline towards the vibrato quite frequently throughout Heart Food, and not always successfully. “There’s A Ragged Road” with its simple fiddle and horses’ hooves and complex pedal steel accompaniment, works reasonably well because of the colouring which the instrumentation provides; the vibrato, however, makes Sill’s voice more agitated and uncertain. At times (e.g. “sun goes down” and “color all my weary days”) she sounds as though she’s falling off the edge of the world, and the pedal steel echoes her appositely with downward slides or incandescent, purplish hazes of chordality. But the album sags audibly in the dreary middle section of “The Vigilante” and “Soldier Of The Heart,” where she basically revisits the same theme (though “Soldier” deploys a more robust, rockish approach musically) with decreasing levels of passion and interest. Indeed, a fourth song off the same, tiring block, “The Desperado,” was also recorded for the album but left off; possibly because of titular overlap with the contemporaneous Don Henley song but more probably because it trod the same wearying ground.

Or perhaps a symmetrical approach, as on Time (The Revelator), was intended, since rather more complex acoustic ballads appear at either end of the record; “The Pearl,” whose strings astutely veer as her emotions do – still looking for salvation and trying to avoid the obvious last temptation (“I saw the dealer and his friend arrive/But their gifts looked grim”), echoed by more sublime chord changes (e.g. right after “sells them by the pound”), and “The Phoenix,” which despite its serene surface contains one of her most tortured lyrics (“And when I tried to speak, the sun imploded/And the war will wage in my guts”).

She shows somewhat more purpose when she switches from guitar to piano; “Down Where The Valleys Are Low” is a terrific C&W gospel doowop number (should such a thing exist) and the interplay between Sill and her backing singers (including Gloria Jones, the future Mrs Bolan) is highly reminiscent of Nyro and Labelle on Gonna Take A Miracle, with adroit accompaniment from vibes, clean, single-note lead guitar and a fairly querulous organ. As the song progresses towards its hoped salvation, the backing singers become breathier, more excited, freer. Still…”push me on from the danger that’s pullin’ me”…

Similarly, “When The Bridegroom Comes” has just a straightforward, hymnal piano accompaniment; the lyric, the only one on either album not to be written by Sill herself, was composed by her then partner, and perhaps her truest love, David Bearden. Despite its sometimes parlous Biblical tone (“By the Pharisees cursed”) the song, largely because of Sill’s plaintive delivery, is very moving indeed, beckoning the Other not to remain locked in her own darkness – “With your door opened wide/Won’t you listen in the dark for the midnight cry?/And see when your light is on/That the bridegroom comes.” Well, reverse the gender and that story’s true enough, even if the bride had to get that door open somehow…and that holy tremble on the “let their” of the line “let their poor hearts complaint” makes you want to clutch the planet to your bosom.

I have of course left “The Kiss” and “The Donor” until last because in this context, and for that matter in the context of singer-songwriters of the seventies, they sound as though beamed down from another planet, certainly not from any notion of “folk” or “country” or even “pop,” and despite the unevenness of the rest of Heart Food they are the reasons why the record would have to be prised from the proverbial cold dead hands. There were precedents for “The Kiss” in the first album, particularly in “Lady-O,” but this song’s loving stasis is the expression of a soul and spirit complete – with its near-motionless strings, at least until the final verse, when they turn pizzicato, as the heart begins to beat again, and its divine, almost ahuman vocal from Sill, it stands in fit company next to Julee Cruise’s “Mysteries Of Love” (one of the three musical axes on which Blue Velvet spins, and without doubt the most important, signifying as it does the spring flower, perfect, in the cracked vase atop the rotting sill) – yet here it is so utterly pure, the sun now taking the place of the first album’s “sweet silver angels” to come “silently swoopin’ down/Just to show me/How to give my heart away.” Sill’s trademark vocal tactic of dragging the song through elongated sustenatos half a beat behind its tempo gives “The Kiss” an especially dreamlike quality (it sounds at times as if the vocals are being played backwards). And then the glorious, humbling, ascending triad occurs twice; first on the lines “sayin ‘dyin’ is done’/Then a new song was sung/Until somewhere we breathed as one” and second on “where our poor bodies lay/Soothe us gently and say/’Gonna wipe all your tears away’.” While PiL’s “Theme” admittedly does come close, “The Kiss” is just about the best musical argument against suicide that I can think of at this not-at-all late stage.

But then there is “The Donor,” the long, patient, desperate seven-and-a-half minute prayer with which Sill achieved her own closure. No mention of donors in the lyric, but again it is about what to give in order to avoid an end. The song – if song it be, and not roundelay or hymn - very slowly and methodically constructs its fugal lines; the “Kyrie Eleison” prayer materialises from the right channel amid the wordless counterpoints until suddenly the camera zooms in on Sill and her piano…and she sounds as though she’s losing the battle. “So sad…and so true, that even shadows come and hum the requiem” which she sings with approximately equal amounts of compassion and agony. And now, rather than the sun or sweet silver angels, it is the songs themselves which now come “sweepin’ over me” as they come “from so deep…/while I’m sleepin’”…she sees the eclipse of the Moon and the arrow of sorrow “reachin’ to the marrow/Silence cries.” The plea of “Leave us not forsaken” gives it away; this is despair as black as Drake’s black-eyed dog, she knows that the light at the end of the tunnel is most likely her own coffin, and still she cries quietly for mercy (“Kyrie Eleison” – “Lord help us”). Even if she can’t save herself, she might be able to preserve others. The massed overdubbed chorales are elegantly and emotionally orchestrated; not so much harking back to Thomas Tallis but looking forward to the Enya who would make her fortune fifteen years hence with much the same approach, albeit with the advantage of far more technology than was available in Sill’s day (I can see a surviving Sill walking into the New Age light – perhaps she would have been Jane Siberry first, and yes I know Siberry covered “The Kiss”). A final florid piano flurry with the kind of bells which tinkled at the peaceful end of Pharaoh Sanders’ albums of the period seals either her doom or her salvation. Not to be outdone by herself, Sill then adds a brief, jerky fiddle ‘n’ Jew’s harp jig right at the end as a vaguely ironic “That’s all folks!” signoff.

And if “The Donor” represented the bleakest of all mirrors into which Sill could have dared to peer, then no wonder she tried to run away from it thereafter; little surprise that on the unreleased 1974 album which would eventually come out as Dreams Come True she reverted to flighty knees-up hoedowns to disguise the near bipolar nature of her words; songs called “The Apocalypse Express” and “I’m Over” coexist with songs called “The Good Ship Omega, Alpha Bound” and “Sunny Side Up”; words like “I’ll die pointing in the direction of my own resurrection” cohabit with words like “And love comes to lead us home.” Of course it wasn’t to be, and not necessarily because she badmouthed Geffen, but, in partial collaboration with Bearden, she authored her own long demise through a cocktail of bad driving, back pain, drugs, drink, stupid affairs, her preprogrammed parental fucked-upness, drink and drugs. In her notes to the Rhino Handmades reissues Michele Kort understandably glosses over her final moments; the fact remains that it is impossible, even in possession of all the facts, to adjust the quiet, welcoming authority of something like “The Kiss” or the sophisticated musical majesty of something like “The Donor” with the raped junkie who ended up existing in a trailer park, bombed out to oblivion. Maybe she should have come to Britain; but then punk might have wiped her out instantly. How hip would “Lopin’ On Through The Cosmos” have sounded in 1977? How gloriously out of its time did “Wuthering Heights” sound in 1977?

All if, if and more if, and none of it’s going to bring her back (if only she had hung on a little longer, long enough for an Eno or a Lanois to find her). However, the art remains; and to those who would wish to put a considerate full stop to enthusiasm, passion and light in music writing I would merely reply that anyone who listens to “When The Bridegroom Comes” and cannot see a direct spiritual and aesthetic link with Emily Haines’ “Winning” has maybe lost the ability to listen. Honour your ghosts by all means, but live for those who would live for you…because you really never know what pearl might be waiting for you just around the next bend.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .
Wednesday, February 14, 2007

“That’s rather unfair, you know, to stop me criticising the whole of western society just because I can’t suggest a better alternative on my own.”
(David Nobbs, The Death Of Reginald Perrin)

I’ve only just started reading the Reginald Perrin novels, which were written before the TV series was made. Although it is impossible not to visualise the just about unsurpassable Leonard Rossiter portraying the middle-class self-gaoler who has had enough within their pages, and the exchanges are as hilarious as they were on screen (and in addition, Nobbs' observations on the increasing yuppification of rural villages, with five boutiques and no grocers, and the locals priced out of the housing market, read as though written last week, rather than in 1975), the books are made of far darker stuff; in the second novel, The Return Of Reginald Perrin, once more himself, his actions cause him belatedly to drop out of the middle England safety net. Ostracised by all his neighbours, he is forced to seek work on a pig farm, and in the bleakest pages he is suspected of being the local rapist - his house is progressively trashed and even his wife is reluctant not to think of him as guilty.

He rises up again, of course, on the basis of selling rubbish, but that is yet another story. There are moments worthy of BS Johnsonian deconstruction, for example when his wife Elizabeth comes to the fore briefly because she feels it’s about time she had her own chapter. But the conflict at the centre of this long unwinding story is how to reconcile the person he dreams of being with the person which, by circumstance and history, he is compelled to be; and beyond that, a greater reconciliation, between his earthbound, lustful self and his attempted spiritual nobility.

As a struggle it is not dissimilar to what Judee Sill faced, although her story was perilously real and circumstance and biology indeed compelled her to lose the happy ending. I don’t propose to go into her biography in any depth here, since the story is told at articulate and compelling length in the essays which accompany the CD reissues of both the albums she released within her lifetime, as well as the catchall package of outtakes and demos for an unrealised third album. But beware; as far as her two studio albums are concerned (and these are really all which need concern us here) it is urgently recommended that you seek out the Rhino Handmade import CD reissues rather than the cheap-looking 2CD domestic package released last year, since the former give her music and soul the compassionate harbour denied to her in actual life.

Nor can I give a thirty-year history of intimate knowledge of Sill’s work; though from the covers I suspect I must have seen them a thousand times in the Glasgow record shop cutout racks of my seventies youth, I never invested – another sensitive American singer/songwriter? The inadequate cup overfloweth; all those Toni Browns and Terry Garthwaites and Essra Mohawks clogging up Listen Records on Renfield Street, when all my punk-retuned ears wanted to hear was NOWNESS. Anyone who thinks I’m an intolerant musical extremist now should have seen me back in 1979 when I was cheerfully screaming out my Sun Ra and Alternative TV discs in music appreciation class at Uddingston Grammar and every fucking body else was still getting off on ELO and Boney M and Motherfucking Rush (with or without the Mahogany) and avoiding me as though I had a big red X painted across the back of my school blazer with the VIRTUTE CRESCAM badge replaced by a splattering UNCLEAN!

And then you live quite a lot more life, and quarter of a century later, after you’ve been hit by everything a human being could possibly have been hit with, except guess what, there’s more, you’re coming up for forty and on your own and end up needing that quiet consolation. Then you despise your rash youthful self for so brief a moment before realising that, actually, even if I had bothered to check out Judee Sill when I was fifteen – when she was just about still alive and could have made a tiny bit more money out of my purchasing – I wouldn’t have got it. No, my 1979 notion of the soul was defiantly long and dark and nocturnal; Unknown Curtis and Metal Lydon my all-too-fallible avatars.

But eventually, just like that Gillian Welch record somehow found me when I was ready to settle beneath the most conclusive of darkness – well, there is a habit which has repeated itself through my listening life, and that is if I need to hear a piece of music, or an album, somehow it will find me, even if I have to be made aware of it by a stray paragraph in a music monthly. Music will come to me when the time is right for me to appreciate it and learn from it.

You pause for a slighter moment and do a microepisodic doubleback: hold on, I’m supposed to be healed and enlightened by this music, but it didn’t do anything for its creator, did it? It didn’t save her! A good job we don’t make that a maxim by which life must be lived; otherwise bang go Plath and Crane and Larkin and Hardy knows who else. And in the end one always has to invoke Larkin’s Law; learn from and embrace the art, and never mind the failings of the artist (even if the latter are more often than not the vital, life-draining fluid for the former).

So I wanted to find those Judee Sill records and listen to them; a characteristically dry irony that in this decentralised age Sill’s albums until recently remained far easier to find on vinyl than on CD; those Rhino Handmade editions cost a bundle. But if you think of it as a life investment, something you’re going to come back to again and again for the next half-century, as opposed to all those Klaxons and Just Jack and Mika and Fall Out Boy albums which you’ll end up bagging and hauling to MVE in 18 months’ time (as someone who, last Saturday, stood in Tottenham Court Road’s Fopp for some time weighing up the pros and cons of purchasing a Val Doonican 2CD compilation I don’t suppose I’m one to talk…and no, I didn’t buy it…but really, don’t those names in themselves read like a pilot contestant list for an as yet unrealised Indie X-Factor? And they sure as hell sound like it, too – maybe if we can force ourselves to forget Marc Bolan for the next ten years, since at the moment we need a lot more Colin Blunstones and Duncan Brownes than we do third-hand glam manglers), then you might agree that the cost is worthwhile.

Most importantly, Judee Sill’s two official albums should be played on heavy rotation in immediate earshot of any dumb right-wing politician ready to condemn societal failures to the lifelong sin bin. Look at her generous, beaming, humble face, her delicate hands, her carefree, cascading hair, listen to that embracing voice (“Oh thank you!” she drawls, elongated and ecstatic, to her appreciative audience during the Boston Music Hall performance which can be found in full as a bonus addendum to her eponymous debut album). You might catch a rare glimpse of it in the corner of an unusually wary eye – certainly if you immerse your ears and soul in her music you will hear it continuously, underneath the peace – but this glorious, articulate, ornate and simple music was the creation of an alcoholic, a drug addict, a convicted robber and a sometime hooker. She had been all of these – and circumstance and drugs would eventually conspire to finish her off – and yet here she is in this version of 1971, fresh, eager and heartfelt, ready to share her art with whoever will receive her, and more besides.

The opening “Crayon Angels” features just Sill’s curiously familiar, vibrato-free but warm voice and acoustic guitar, together with a cor anglais motif which curls around the song like a welcoming cradle…and immediately I think of Gillian Welch; the same delivery, the same expectant aura of doom or glory, the same metaphorical struggle against the “mystic roses” which died, the “magic rings” which “turned my finger green” and the “phony prophets” who “stole the only light I knew.” Yet the door of hope is here left open; it ends with the angels coming back and laughing in her dreams.

Then “The Phantom Cowboy,” the first of several songs concerning her extremely questionable taste in men, though perhaps all of these songs are differingly oblique reflections of the same man, the ideal (“The Archetypal Man” as the following track puts it). Ostensibly a fairly jaunty C&W tune, it soon bends into murkier waters as hissing , threatening low strings accompany Sill’s wary “But the ledge is steep” before resuming its former buoyancy – though the violins end the song with a huge question mark of a curlicue, perhaps wondering whether she has the nerve to “get there in the nick of time” despite her “sittin’ in the grit and grime.”

The orchestral arrangements – jointly done by Don Bagley and sometime boyfriend Bob Harris (emphatically not the DJ who takes morbid people around his musical zoo of a late Saturday evening) – are absolutely crucial to this album and help turn it into something christening the hem of greatness. If the sublime mixture of echoing pedal steel and naturalistic baroque orchestral lines which decorate “The Archetypal Man” – leading from the shocking initial rush of descending violins (those sweet silver angels preparing to fly low?) to the blissful stateliness of the geometric backing to Sill’s vocalisation of a harpsichord solo – suggest we are entering Brian (or Dennis) Wilson territory here, then we are; the same mixture of gee-whiz and noble which has enabled Pet Sounds and the original SMiLE to avoid being pinned down for four decades, and the emergence of a genuinely true beauty. Whereas Joanna Newsom simply buys Van Dyke’s lines off the discount rack and clumsily glues them to her less-than-compelling meanderings, here the strings and woodwind breathe as Sill does, in and out with her, so that we get the feeling of one huge pulsating soul of humanity at work in her art. Shiver at her extended “Fleeter” in the line “Fleeter even than Mercury” and we know we are in the presence of someone who intimately understands the osmosis and give-and-take essential to complete expression of her music.

And all the while, in “The Archetypal Man,” Sill is trying to set this man free and wondering whether it’s worth it. “He flies inside the walls he calls his own” she muses sorrowfully but quickly realises that “He looks like everyone I’ve ever known” and ends up yet another false prophet (“But through the rose in his hand…flows blood” is the chilling end which she gives to the song).

“The Lamb Ran Away With The Crown” continues the inventory of her continued carnal/spiritual struggle; its multitempo fluid swing, its unpredictable chord switches and that seemingly misplaced nightclub alto flute suggest a Nashville Laura Nyro – she is driven by near-uncontrollable desire, but every time realises that goodness will win out (the lamb and crown both being deliberate Biblical images). Eventually the song opens up as her spirit does; bass harmonica and rhythm section enter, as does a French horn, and she ends up improvising a multitracked vocal roundelay (which, on the live segment of the CD, she courageously tries to do live) which gives us an early hint of the song which will so shatteringly end her second album.

“Lady-O” had already been recorded by the Turtles (and their bassist, Jim Pons, acts as co-producer here). It is clearly a hymn of worship and embrace – but of what, or whom? “I’ll see you in my holiest dreams” (and pause your heart as her voice flies slowly low on “holiest dreams”) “Lady-O.” Another woman? God? Drugs? The ambiguity was never resolved, and I hope it never is; as it stands, its acoustic guitar and hourglass strings create a humane drone which makes the song almost the direct antecedent of Julee Cruise – that same spectre of a voice emerging from everywhere but nowhere, but unquestionably coming from above.

“Jesus Was A Cross Maker” was a single (given an appropriately pop-ish production by Graham Nash, who also tipped off his old band the Hollies, who promptly released their own version). In her live reading she explains the prayer for “Sweet silver angels over the sea/Please come down flyin’ low for me” as being an articulation of her belief that “the lower down you go to gain your momentum from, the higher it will propel you.” Written about a fairly well-known ex-boyfriend, the musician JD Souther (“Even that wretched bastard was not beyond redemption” she remarks dryly to her audience), the song seems to summarise all of Sill’s inner struggles; he is a “bandit and a heartbreaker” who pretends to be the answer but really loves the struggle (“Fightin’ [the devil] he lights a lamp invitin’ him”). But then again, if Christ could have been the manufacturer of the method of his own execution – and if he could still forgive – then Sill entertains the notion that she can still forgive him, however little he deserves it. Fittingly the arrival of a tambourine opens the song up, and band and backing singers (including Rita Coolidge) bolster Sill and help her towards the end, along with such sublime touches like the acidic trill of violins on the word “angels” in the second chorus. Here we also find Sill’s voice at its most characteristic – still free of vibrato but preferring long, flowing, bar-vaulting lines of melody, flitting from octave to octave with seemingly the minimum of effort.

“Ridge Rider” returns to the “Phantom Cowboy” territory; the non-archetypal man, the one she really wants to save, riding a ridge that is “mighty thin” and not realising that “he’s travelin’ with a friend” – the “friend” clearly being the same friend whose death-defying virtues Frankie Laine extolled on 1954’s “My Friend,” namely God…or could she mean herself? Musically this is where the album kisses transcendence most clearly; her high, concerned “scared” and “gold” – and the beyond-beautiful chord change which accompanies both – contrasted with the trembling “weight,” one of the few instances of vibrato on the record, but only in the sense that she’s trying to balance herself atop a crumbling cliff edge. Then, paved by another French horn obbligato, the music trails off into ethereality, expressing the inarticulable – a long, eternal fadeout which very much puts Judee Sill, the album, on the same suprahuman plane as Astral Weeks and Pacific Ocean Blue.

“My Man On Love” is comparatively straightforward, musically if not lyrically; an acoustic guitar and multitracked voices with a glockenspiel twinkling like the merciful nocturnal stars. She comes down hard on “tomb” in the line “No sorrow is like yours my friend, though silence is your tomb” and yet manages to extend the “doom” of the following “I’d take your every agony to save you from this doom” to twelve elegantly twisting, arching syllables. “One star remains in the false darkness” she sings, as if slowly revealing the action necessary to complete the intent. It is “most high, most high” (and note how the guitar harmonics bend down unexpectedly here, as though God be crouching down for a chat) “my man on love” – God, or the man she would save, or both?

“Lopin’ Along Thru The Cosmos” might be the greatest song title ever, and the song itself luxuriates in near-indescribable beauty, somehow as simultaneously within this world and on another planet entirely as the Cocteaus at their finest; more heart-bending modulations on the words “slide” and “ripple,” those kissing strings again, Sill’s voice ascending boldly but still sounding like a sob, the way her ENTIRETY crumbles on the word “land” (I mean, I was listening to Kate Bush in 1979; how could I have missed all of this?). Then all of a sudden the strings come into the foreground and adopt progressively more subtle Oriental lines and harmonies; like the end of Massive Attack’s 100th Window, it is akin to a camera suddenly panning out into space to take the whole globe into its view. She cuts it off sharply with a “do-do do-do-do” but not before she has given me a central and key message – “However we are is O.K.” We can live anywhere, on anything, doing anything, and as long as there is a “we” we know we can and will be happy. See what I mean about needing to hear this at the right time, as opposed to even fourteen months ago when I originally promised I’d write about Judee Sill?

It’s nearly time to get going. On the live version of “Enchanted Sky Machines” she prefaces the song with a good 3-4 minutes of rolling gospel piano, learned when she was the church organist at her reform school, and its upbeat message demands deliverance; the metaphorical flying saucers (or sweet silver angels) waiting to “take all the gentle home” after the rest of the world has been destroyed. Salvation of the good.

But also:
“Just needin’ to touch you/Is so hard to restrain/Just waitin’ for the time/Could maybe make me insane/My heart is so hungry/Livin’ on patience alone…”

A better world…but she knows that patience and faith are the keys to that particular kingdom. That final bitonal ring-a-ring-a-roses piano threat at the end…doom or glory? It is up to those of us who want it.

(Prefacing her live reading of "Jesus Was A Cross Maker" she remarks that "this song saved me. It was either writing this song or suicide.")

Then, finally, on the brief “Abracadabra” she performs the act of release. Over one acoustic guitar, she sings, very low so the angels might reach her, “Here’s to the man who forgot his way home. Who silently narrates the confusion of his fight. He fears the great truth that would free him with its mercy. He hates his own darkness. Dare he hide from this light?”

It’s me, isn’t it? Me for all of those five tortured years…well, no wonder I had to wait until now to hear it. And yes but yes oh YES:

“Abracadabra, here’s the key to the kingdom. See thru the eyes that be behind yours.”

And suddenly the curtains and the windows open and the sunshine is let in, allowing first a harmonica, then the strings, and then – perhaps the last and biggest aural shock on the whole record – the full orchestra suddenly emerging into widescreen, brass, timpani, tubular bells and all, and it is not just a Hollywood ending but it is a Scott Walker or a MacArthur Park ending which ends on YES rather than NO, and look what was here in front of you, all around you, all this time and now you have opened the eyes that matter and it is Parliament Hill Fields in the August sunshine and it is Sylvia made right and…well, we know the story by now, and we know enough perhaps to make Judee Sill right, twenty-seven years after she’s gone, know that by our happy ending we just might…we never know, and that’s the excitement…put everything right…

“But put on your crown, my Queen, and we will build a New City on these ruins.”
(Eldridge Cleaver, “To All Black Women, From All Black Men,” from Soul On Ice)

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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