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
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