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

Thursday, July 05, 2007

An open request to CoM readers, particularly those in, or within striking distance of, London; can you please forcibly remind me to take some paracetamols with me whenever I go record shopping? I had a headache that Saturday morning, and Beyoncé’s B’Day album blasting out at authoritatively earsplitting level only intensified it. I beat a hasty retreat, internally muttering about going to Speaker’s Corner or an early morning Multidisciplinary Team Meeting if I wanted hectoring. Some months later, I now creep back, somewhat shamefaced. No doubt I was additionally deterred from initial investigation by the drowsy dreariness of the latter two-thirds of her previous album.

But now I think: what was I thinking? See that bucket of water, Carlin? Pour it over yourself, and hard! Because even if the purpose of this blog was to recommend trusty buys, tasty addenda to your next record shopping cart, I’d still demand that you not be like me and go out and buy this near-year-old Beyoncé second album because it’s just about the most futuristic fun to be had in current parlance avant-pop.

Worse, I feel as if I now actually like the woman. From the evidence of the CD booklet photos alone it is clear that Beyoncé has gone mad. She appears in various Deep South rural poses, with those curiously dead blackened eyes – though catch that little red wink as she sips her cocktail – on the dusty road, or the dusty railtrack, or perched afront a porch like Scarlett Flipping O’Hara, or…and this is what does it…posing with two skies impaled on two doped, or possibly stuffed, alligators as though having just passed the audition for Live And Let Die. How can you not love this woman?

Even in my temporary Beyoncé blind spot period “Déjà Vu” still felt like a natural and ebullient number one single, with its Neneh Cherry lollipop intro of “Bass! Hi-hat! 808! Jay? Let’s go get ‘em!” and its superb horn charts, which sound like they came from some beyond-obscure 1973 Eugene McDaniels outtake bootleg but are new, and utterly urbane, elegantly counteracting Beyoncé’s looped obsession: “You know that I can’t get over you! ‘Cos everything I see is you!” she exclaims, and indeed she sees him on every corner, can’t escape from him (“Get me on the next ‘plane outta here!”) and is ultimately dazed and spellbound (“Boy I try to control myself but I’m out of control!”). She ejaculates with a four-second-long “Whoooo-ahhh!” to bookend her stoned “’Cos I see-ee-ee-eeee” earlier on, and in the middle of all this Jay-Z pops up with a completely out of place rap about drugs (but then, isn’t love her drug?). Insane and brilliant.

The Swizz Beatz production team contribute two numbers (as well as the entertaining but inessential “Check It Out” bonus track, although the latter, with its cameo by Bun B, provides a direct link to the current Dizzee Rascal album). “Get Me Bodied” begins thrillingly with abstract Eno cuboid blockades over which Beyoncé robotically intones “9…4…8…1…B’day!” before hitting into a percussion-dominant groove out of which the song grows organically, encapsulating everything that last year’s Nelly Furtado album couldn’t, or wouldn’t – revel in that growl in her: “Why am I standing on the WALL?” and her positively wet “ALL I want!” “Ring The Alarm” is meanwhile dazzling; over sirens and through a megaphone she screeches “I’ll be DAMNED if I see another chick on your arm!” – this would make a great segue with Björk’s “Declare Independence” – before hanging and clinging desperately to the song’s vertiginous strobe light of a hook, hammering again and again into the central premise of “I can’t let you go.”

“Upgrade U,” produced by Cameron Wallace, is simply magnificent. Over a loop of what sounds like a drunken accordion Beyoncé turns the table on her would-be suitor and offers to save him. “You need a real woman in your life,” she purrs before stepping up the temperature by proclaiming “I can do for you what Martin did for the people!” BRILLIANT! Isn’t this what we want from pop – absurdity so absurd that you have no alternative save to believe it? She wants to save him, and what a contrast from the coldly rationalist teenager who barked out “Bills, Bills, Bills” nearly a decade previously. Note how the midsong entrance of tambourine immediately doubles the song’s rhythmic intensity. She promises to “introduce you to some new things” including “dimples on your necktie” (I say!). Once again Jay-Z contributes a thoroughly irrelevant (and thus never more relevant) rap concerning “rooms at the Bloomberg” as well as Mafiosi. His final plea of “Mama, let me upgrade you” is very Dizzee in its vulnerability, and it’s clear that Beyoncé’s in charge of saving duties; by the end she doubles the words back on herself, stretches them out and becomes extremely lascivious (those “lemme lemme”s)…

Even the long-dormant Neptunes seem to have been reignited by Beyoncé’s example. “Kitty Kat” is a devious cocktail in which the singer attempts to seduce herself, her Other out partying all the time while she’s left in the house all alone, swooning at her self-attraction (those descending “let’s go”s) with her come-to-bed-now entreaties rebuffed by a winking “quite frankly, I’m not giving it.” Better still, “Green Light” finds her resolute and welcoming once more, with her opening imprecation of “Give it to Mama!” and the rattling beats which explode with each chorus into a bouncing ball of a 3/4 march over a steadily hyperventilating 4/4 base, the effect being that of a brass band playing “Mouldy Old Dough” to the accompaniment of their neighbours’ beatbox with a sneaky vocal lift from Amerie’s “1 Thing.” Then the song descends unexpectedly into a mellow acoustic-led funk workout, gradually resolving via a (synth?) trombone line into the original Space Hopper of a groove.

But, as with Dangerously In Love and the first Amerie album, Rich Harrison’s pair of tracks are the strongest. “Suga Mama” takes a JB-style sample (“Searching For Soul” by J Wade and the Soul Searchers, according to the credits) and Beyoncé and Harrison wring it through a major/minor seesaw of a harmonic sequence, but with tremendous rhythmic drive. She wants your sugar, and her invitation to “Come sit upon my lap” very nearly inspired two thousand brief spurts of words in capital letters on my part (if this had come out in 1974 I would have been incoherent). By the song’s climax (oh yes) her craving is so strong (that agitated quartet of “Yeah!”s in the middle eight) that she ends up yelling “Take my credit cards!” for said sugar in return. Her final, beyond-ecstatic yelps of “Y-y-YESSS-ah!” are things of which this world’s Winehouses can only dream (if they can dream).

And “Freakum Dress” is beyond everything, the triumphant, unapologetic futurism which keeps me hooked on pop and on life, its epiphanic, stumblingly atonal harmonic refrain roaming and kissing like a pink searchlight, with one of the greatest intros in 21st-century pop thus far; “To be or not to be?” Beyoncé asks, before deciding: “NOT!” Then she has no alternative but to go mad. “Bring the beat back!” she squeals when it hasn’t actually gone away. “Stop!” she asks the music, which doesn’t stop. “I’m not quite ready yet…let me fix my hair…Yes! YES!!” And she launches into this thoroughly life-affirming thrust about getting her freakum dress out of the closet where it has presumably been hidden for far too long, to go out into the world and dazzle it into cooperation. Since it feels like Aretha produced by Syd Barrett, it naturally has private resonance for me, and it is so great that you want to hug the planet.

“Irreplaceable” is the only really dud track, a nondescript Stargate conveyor belt production which revives the haughtily unattractive Beyoncé persona of the Survivor period. But the closing track proper (though in addition to “Check It Out,” we also get a strange spoken word Beyoncé thank you message leading to her rendition of the song “Listen” from the film of Dreamgirls and an extended mix of “Get Me Bodied”), the ballad “Resentment,” is one of Beyoncé’s finest achievements. Built on the foundations of the old Impressions song “Think” (again, different from the Aretha one), this is an extraordinary depiction of love betrayed and lost. Her emotional control is perfect; though her range is wide and passionate, she never falls into the Mariah trap of burble melisma; you feel her hurt with every anguished yell and sigh of hers (that shattering “Sacrifice!” at the song’s climax), and finally all the façades come down and we see something approaching the real Beyoncé, devoid of gloss (the song’s accompaniment is defiant old school small group Memphis) or pastiche (Joss Stone, take note); when she sees the woman for whom her lover has rejected her, and collapses with that dying moan of “And she’s ha-half of me!” – on that “ha-half” she can scarcely find it within herself to breathe a second more – we collapse with her. Pushing through the headache barrier, we find heartache. This is a bloody marvel of an album, and I can only apologise for leaving it so long to realise it as such. Next time, MC, take your two tablets, do not exceed the stated dose, &c…

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