Wednesday, July 23, 2008
The Stars We Are
Melody Maker, 1988
by Simon Reynolds
Can we trust Marc Almond? I don't know if we can trust someone who uses the word "I" so often - in 1988, the year of the eclipse of the self. Is he really the man, as he so incessantly claims, to take us to the borders of experience
("I'll take your heart to limit", he promises), or lure us to our doom in the "labyrinth of hopes and fears" that is his soul?
Marc Almond seems a little too happy in his abundant awareness that he's one crazily mixed up kid. His ideas about himself are just a little too collected. And he's far too confident that we all share his fascination with himself. Is he really that uncomfortable with himself and the world? His work smacks more of of self-possession, than of a soul possessed or dispossessed.
Of course, there's still a place for autobiography, or storytellers who use the first person singular - Nick Cave springs immediately to mind. But in 1988, the real "heroes" are on a suicide mission. They are vanquished by, and vanish into, some Other - whether it's the Loved One, or the blue Beyond, or some irretrievable, halcyon memory of continuum at the mother's breast. Guy Chadwick, A.R. Kane, My Bloody Valentine... they want to gaze, not be gazed upon; they disappear, rather than dramatise themselves in the spotlight, centre stage.
And so the production style of the moment is the Haze, where the voice blends and bleeds into the sound. Almond, revealingly, chooses to ape the production of Sixties
"entertainment music", where the voice is mixed upfront and diction crystal clear. Every painfully ill-fashioned word (random extract: "in my hand/like grains of sand/a thousand million moments of emotion") is pushed to the fore of our
The cabaret idea is to give pain poise, even grandeur. The models are Scott Walker, Gene Pitney (there's a cover of his "Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart"), Piaf, perhaps Tim Rose. Almond doesn't realise that the broken, beaten or deficient voice actaully communicates more these days (Vini Reilly, Band Of Holy Joy, The Valentines). He's even, finally, learnt to sing "properly". Like his lyrics, his
vocalisation is outre: what we get are the hallowed mannerisms of passion. It's over-demonstrative, full-bodied, plummy.
His words have always been prosaic, never quite purple or baroque enough. What inflamed them was his singing, that bruise of a voice. What was great about Almond was the way his voice didn't flow: it was the grain (the body's resistance to the voice) that gave his songs their special, glowering intensity. But The Stars We Are contains Almond's most controlled performances, and that sense of hysteria, of something being torn from the body, has gone.
As for the "classicism" of the arrangements, for all the wide-screen, windswept tumult of strings, horns, tympani and grand piano, this music isn't quite lush or flushed enough. It sounds a little cut-price, some-expense-spared. Almond's
ambitions fall short in much the same way that The Associates' Perhaps wasn't the passionade it could have been. Only "Your Kisses Burn", with its kettle-drum calvacade and Nico's frost-bite hauteur, is truly grandiose. The Stars We Are fails because you can't get that Scott Walkers feel in modern studios (you need compressors etc). But neither is it as dignified a rapprochement with modern technology as Walker's recent Climate Of Hunter, or as radical a deconstruction of orchestral pop as Skin's brilliant Shame, Humility and Revenge. Instead, what we get is faintly fetching, period drama. Hommage.
Almond's confession rise a little too easily to the surface: there's no sense of a violent unblocking. He's neither a consumptive nor a self-exorcist, but a product of
this century's incitement to self-analysis. We live in a therapeutic, counselling culture, where we're urged to a constant interrogation of ourselves, in order to penetrate the essence of our being. Madness, perversion, criminality, aberration, are no longer considered pathological, but as something within us all, and possibly the founding truth and mainspring of our identity. We're encouraged to gather more and more data about ourselves, and then reveal it the caring "experts". This
neurotic drive to self-probing and public baring has in the past driven Almond to the extreme of writing an anthem to masturbation, "Mother Fist". But some forms of self-knowledge are just banal, and Almond's writing reminds me more of the
current spate of singer-songwriters, or Cosmo-consciousness, than the haunted, hunted men he evidently admires -- the black, bitter solitiude of Scott Walker, Tim Rose's terrible burden of shame.
His work is like some exhaustive, protracted and public diary, all bald depiction and naff fantasy ("She Stole My Soul In Istanbul"!). The insatiable quest for self-knowledge that can drive someone to rewrite a diary from two years back, in order to include the insights of hindsight, can be touching in a friend. Certainly, it's better than being in poor contact with your heart of hearts. But is Almond's
relentless self-scrutiny turning up anything worth bringing to public attention? I fear not.
He was immensely special for a time, up to and including "Soul Inside", if for nothing more than his capacity for being embarrassing. And he's still an endearing presence. But what's likeable is his "innocence". He never seems borne under by the experiences he's (apparently) had, never sounds as though he's seen too much, or can't live with himself. It's this halo of ingenuousness that's the flaw in his art.
Like that other charming man, Morrissey, it could be that the seam of his troubled self is exhausted. But he's one of our last characters, you cry! Hmmm. Certainly, Marc Almond- like Julian Cope, Jobson, and all those other never-wozzers - makes the journalist's job easy. Just get them onto their favourite subject, and they're off, and you can put up your feet. I distrust those who fete the Last Eccentrics, in the same way I distrust people who say they only read biographies: people who subscribe to the Great Man theory of history, invariably secretly reckon themselves to be Great Men too. 1988 is the year of "the end of me", and poor old Marc Almond -I think we can strike him off our agenda of bliss.