Fifth and final in a series of posts where I go through some of my favourite albums of the decade which made Ferris Bueller, Jello Pudding Pops and f*cking Bon Jovi*.
Here’s Lou Reed’s ‘The Blue Mask’ from 1982…
By 1982, Lou Reed was slipping out of his 30s. The Blue Mask is the musical result of turning 40 (which I hear can be quite weird), and it’s at times brain-meltingly heavy and sorrowfully mellow; an evocation of both the desperate anger of losing youth and the bittersweet acceptance of it.
By this time, Lou had let go of the New York druggy, androgynous, Warhol-obsessed faux-decadence he had been peddling for the entirety of the 1970s from the detached persona of a sleazy intellectual, and by the 1980’s had actually begun to sing about himself with the kind of scary honesty that we had never seen before. The face of Transformer, as the cover and title shows, is now just a mask. Clean, sober and living in a rural retreat in New Jersey at the time, Reed seems at first glance happy with ‘my house, my motorcycle and my wife’, but on Waves of Fear confesses to ‘cringe at my terror and hate my own smell’. Jee-zuss, Lou. Chill your bean.
The man has a knack for assembling really weird bands, and this one; comprised of highly melodic jazz bassist Fernando Saunders, avant-geetarrist Robert Quine and top notch pro-thrasher Doane Perry can do floaty jazz and industrial rock in equal weird measure, and reach that weird musical alchemy while doing so.
His best album. Yeah, I said it.
9 Heavenly Arms out of 10
*Liiiivvvviiinnn’ on a praaayyyyerrrr
4th in a series of posts in which I go through the finest albums of the 1980s. This time: Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden from 1988…
Spirit of Eden is a record so difficult to write about, that I almost didn’t include it. It’s one of those complete anomalies of rock music; an ambient, floating, psychedelic, incense-laden, baroque, at times overwhelmingly intense and other times borderline narcoleptic. It recalls the challenging prog-ambient epics of the 60s and 70s: Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, or possibly even moments on The Grateful Dead’s Live/Dead album in its deep thoughts and mesmeric undertones.
”It was very, very psychedelic. We had candles and oil wheels, strobes going, sometimes just total darkness in the studio. You’d get totally disorientated, no daylight, no time frame.” says Phill Brown, the engineer of the album. It was recorded by chance, the music being made spur-of-the-moment, pure experimentation in reaction to the moody environment described by Jones.
This tells us that the numbingly beautiful atmospheric journey of Spirit of Eden is not simply manufactured just for the listener; the band is being taken along those unpredictable streams just as you are, and are just as hypnotised by their own music as you are. Whereas playing extended live jams can often produce a sense of being so completely involved in the music that you reach a sort of divine Buddhist-like unawareness, I can think of no studio albums of which this can be said other than Spirit of Eden. “There is no way that I could ever play again a lot of the stuff I played on this album because I just wouldn’t know how to” vocalist Mark Hollis said.
10 Rainbows out of 10
One of those true one-offs.
All music is owned by Universal Music group and Talk Talk and its members
Part 3 in a series of posts in which I go through my choices for the best, most representative (or most anomalous) records of the 1980s. Here’s Steve Earle’s Guitar Town from 1986…
Don’t mistake this album as polished good ol’ boy rockin’, twangin’ country made for hicks. Though it’s production is sharp and glossy (it was among the first entirely digitally recorded country albums), Steve Earle himself isn’t polished, and the stories he tells aren’t romanticized. He manages to subtly pack a significant amount of American myth and character into these simple songs. He disguises them as good-timey patriotism songs, but sneaks in his own razor-sharp statements on Reagan’s America under the guise of the Southern characters he sings as, whom are portrayed with equal parts wry mockery and affection:
Just my luck
I was born in the land of plenty now there ain’t enough
I’ve been told
Nowadays it just don’t pay to be a good ol’ boy
Guitar Town, the title track, opens this LP with vigour; a love letter to life as a travelling musician, that goes through the rough times, the cheap Japanese guitars and the timeless highway spirit. Earle gets a little sentimental with My Old Friend the Blues, one of the only weak points of the experience, though I commend that he approaches it with a genuine blues attitude as opposed to the treacly, bittersweet whine of a Nashville country ballad.
It acts as part of 3 popular albums that I see as a trilogy of ‘heartland rock’ in the 80s; calls to arms for solidarity among simple folk and an older, honest vision of America in reaction to Reagan’s decade and increasing globalization and industrialism: Springsteen’s Born in the USA (1984), John Mellencamp’s Scarecrow (1985), and the album in question. While Guitar Town may not be the most fist-pumpingly arresting, it stands as the dark horse in this trio, and one of the most overlooked of its era.
8 Hillbilly Highways out of 10
Some great guitar hooks as well.
Second in a series of my picks for the best, most representative albums of the 1980s.
Update: As the picture to the left shows, I am using photos of my own copy of the albums in question from now on, through some miracle of image syncing that my feeble brain could not previously comprehend. I am no longer such a cretin with technology! (*the crowd roars*) Here’s R.E.M.’s Murmur from 1983…
When people say ‘R.E.M. are the originators of alternative rock’, they don’t mean that R.E.M. originated the musical nature of alternative rock to come out in the 80s and 90s. They mean that R.E.M. quite simply originated the very idea
and manner of being alternative and ‘indie’ for the 80s and 90s. Stylistically influential, but not musically, which is fine as it makes them that much more unique and inimitable. They defined the state being on the arty perimeters for around 6 years until they broke into that despicable mainstream.
The lyrics on Murmur sound utterly random, and truly weird. Not weird in an exotic, Captain Beefheart way, but weird from the mundane depths of the mind. They make absolutely no sense, which initially I thought was just lazy and stupid. Then I realized that the lyrics make perfect sense phonetically, which is what the highly rhythmic backing asks for. The nervous but measured cadences of Peter Buck’s jangling Rickenbacker are so perfectly congruent with Stipe’s floating melody, with each strange word making perfect musical sense. It’s this blend of endless hooks and cryptic lyrics that makes Murmur endlessly listenable.
You can actually measure the point when R.E.M. lost their way by measuring when Michael Stipe’s lyrics become understandable. This album is their absolute peak, before Stipe fades slowly into comprehensibility.
Note: I know there will be readers who automatically disregard R.E.M. due to excessive exposure to Everybody Hurts. Please forget it. This record is unrelated to that zippo-waving, pseudo-sensitive twaddle
Use this link at your own risk… http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/rem/radiofreeeurope.html
Part of a series where I go through my favourite albums from the 1980s. Maybe this blog is too 60s/70s-centric, so here are the albums that I think do the best to define the aura of that decade; the musical touchstones of the era, if you like: Alternative rock, Indie rock, Jangle pop Post-rock, ‘World music’, and other completely feeble, redundant categories. Here’s Paul Simon’s Graceland:
The origins of this record are wonderfully humble: Paul Simon is listening to a beaten up copied tape of South African ‘Accordion Jive Hits Vol 2’, which piques his curiosity. Showing, naturally, a complete disregard for the ‘Academic Boycott of South Africa‘ during the apartheid era on the glorious basis that it’s all just music anyway (the only universal language), he travels there to record. I suppose if most other western singer-songwriters were asked their reasoning for going to South Africa to record, they’d say something like: ‘I wanted to introduce people to the music of this wonderful culture’. All shrouded in naive western concepts of cultural exoticism. Their lyrics would probably be full of angst about the apartheid (none of their business), acting like a kind of patronising talent agent to the South African musicians, sampling their ‘indigenous musics’, polishing it up and sending it back home to mass popularity. A kind of musical imperialism if you will.
Thank god, then, that Paul Simon comes across like someone utterly bereft of this: no delusions of personal grandeur, nor any obvious literary pretensions. However, he’s confident enough with his own lyrical talent (and rightly so) to write about Elvis Presley’s mansion, talk show hosts, cinematographers, and his (or his characters’) mundance romantic encounters. All of this in an album made of the then-‘exotic’ African sounds. He mythologizes Memphis, Tennessee while his African musicians play music that is distinctly African. Yet it works. Because he’s Paul Simon.
10 Mambazos out of 10
Here are some of the most prophetic lyrics ever written. ‘Staccato signals of constant information’ seems like it’s almost predicting the digital age:
And I believe
These are the days of lasers in the jungle
Lasers in the jungle somewhere
Staccato signals of constant information
A loose affiliation of millionaires
And billionaires and baby
These are the days of miracle and wonder