Sunday, May 18, 2008

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts
Uncut, 2006

by Simon Reynolds

On its original 1981 release, this album was widely dissed for being “cold-blooded,” “detached”, an eggheads-in-the-soundlab experimental exercise. Yet Bush of Ghosts drips with emotional intensity, it’s just that the feelings don't come directly from the record's makers but from the found voices--Pentecostal preachers, Algerian Muslims--harvested by the duo from American radio and ethnic field recordings. In another sense, the whole project is framed by the conflicted emotions--uneasy fascination, admiring envy--that this material stirred in Byrne & Eno, at once attracted by the fervour of these true believers yet incapable (as progressive sorts trapped within modernity’s rationality and temperance) of accessing that kind of passion themselves.

Chances are, you’ll feel the same cold rush as Byrne and Eno the first time they heard the preacher who “stars” on “The Jezebel Spirit. ” The electrifying conviction of his cadences as he exorcises the slutty she-devil that’s possessed an unfaithful wife will make your hair stand on end, even as your liberalism recoils from the patriarchy he’s restoring (“Jezebel, you have no rights to her, her husband is the head of the house”). Elsewhere, it’s the mystical rather than moralising aspect of religion that enthralls Byrne & Eno: “Regiment,” for instance, entwines the ecstastic ululations of a Lebanese mountain singer with sinuous bass and arabesques of synth. Throughout Ghosts, the duo lovingly recontextualise their sources, embedding the voices in a sticky web of psychedelic rhythm, funky ambience, and some of the most counter-intuitive and contortionist basslines you’ll ever hear.

Tracks 1 to 5 (the original first side) are great, but 6 to 11 (side two) is a whole other plane, gliding you through a phantasmagoric sequence of steadily more untaggable and precedent-less groovescapes. Following “Moonlight in Glory”--falter-funk laced with the halting cadences of Scriptural chants and astral gospel plaints, as incanted by a literally isolated African-American sect from the Sea Islands off Georgia’s coast--“The Carrier” shimmers like a portent or future-ghost of The Unforgettable Fire. But instead of Bono, thankfully that Lebanese dude reappears to kiss the heavens. “A Secret Life” is an itchy microcosm as gorgeously infolded as Can’s “Quantum Physics,” while “Come With Us” pretzels bass-gloop and stereo-flickering sorcery into a disorientating audio-maze. Heading out into a non-specifically Oriental hinterland of gaseous gong sounds, “Mountain of Needles” sounds like God sighing with satisfaction at the end of the sixth day. Byrne and Eno, the Creators of an equally marvelous if somewhat more compact universe of sound, ought to have felt pretty pleased with themselves too.

It’s a pity that the immaculate construction that is Ghosts now has an extension tacked onto it: the inevitable slew of out-takes, most of them sketchy and substandard, diminishes the sense of conclusion achieved by “Mountain”. A couple of the bonus tracks work as intriguing footnotes (the ungodly exhalations of “Vocal Outtakes”, the needling stellar twinkle of “Solo Guitar with Tin Foil”) but overall, the effect is a bit like the Almighty following up the Cosmos with an encore of… Croydon.


Audio-Fille said...

"It’s a pity that the immaculate construction that is Ghosts now has an extension tacked onto it..."

Also a pity that the original running order could not be restored: Track six on the 1981 vinyl release was 'Qu'ran', not 'Very, very hungry'.



Re Qu'Ran"

that was based on Algerian Muslims chanting the Qu’Ran, or Koran

“Very Very Hungry” irst appeared as a bonus track on the first CD version of My Life (which came out around 1990). At that point “Qu’Ran” was still on the CD. And obviously with this new deluxe expanded version "Qu'Ran" is absent. Clearly this was a case of post-Satanic Verses jitters. Indeed a record company person told me that “Qu’Ran” was removed under threat of a fatwa and due to pressure from various Muslim groups. The track was considered sacriligous because under Islamic law, the Qu’Ran must never be sung or put to music. Presumably the original chanting by the Algerian Muslims didn’t count as song?

Here’s David Byrne talking about the issue in Pitchfork interview around the reissue of Bush of Ghosts, and why the removal of the track isn’t even mentioned in the liner notes:

“I sort of didn't want to go into it. Partly for the reason that I didn't want to make people feel like something was being withheld, like they were missing something. It also brings up a lot of issues, and I thought, "I don't know if I can resolve all this stuff.

“Way back when the record first came out, in 1981, it might have been '82, we [had received] a request from an Islamic organization in London, and they said, "We consider this blasphemy that you put grooves to the chanting of the Holy Book." And [doing the reissue] we thought, "Okay, in deference to somebody's religion, we'll take it off." You could probably argue for and against monkeying with something like that. But I think we were certainly feeling very cautious about this whole thing. We made a big effort to try and clear all the voices, and make sure everybody was okay with everything. Because we thought, "We're going to get accused of all kinds of things, and so we want to cover our asses as best we can." So I think in that sense we reacted maybe with more caution than we had to. But that's the way it was. “