Kanye West, Jesus Walks (2004)

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Artist: Kanye West
Title: Jesus Walks
Description: single; album track, The College Dropout
Label: Rock-A-Fella
Release date: 2004
First heard: 2004

I wanna talk to God but I’m afraid cause we ain’t spoke in so long

I think I know what you’re thinking. But I used to like Tony Blair, Woody Allen and Christopher Hitchens, too, until I changed my mind (or in fact, to a degree, until they changed theirs). In the same way, we shouldn’t allow the global court jester Kanye West has turned into since his first two albums in 2004 and 2005 to blot his once good name. That was some run. (I know, other people retain a candle for his third LP Graduation in 2007, but he’d lost me by then and Auto-Tune has had him ever since.)

Having grown up with hip-hop, I’ve often despaired of the way it turned out in mainstream terms. The most powerful, profitable and influential music since piano-tie rock’n’roll, hip-hop has grown bloated and increasingly meaningless. Certainly, pockets of sincerity and invention exist, on the fringes (Death Grips, MF Doom, briefly Clipse – and those date me), but since the Wu-Tang Clan’s glory days, little has floated my boat. This is not snobbery; I’ve been into Jay-Z, had a crack at Nas, but in the main, I find that the genre’s been co-opted by careerists and poppets.

In 2004 (God, that’s a decade ago), it looked very much like we’d found a new saviour. Kanye, a man with no gangsta credentials, had overcome the industry commonplace that he was a producer not a performer through grit and determination, and crafted College Dropout pretty much singlehandedly. It was a visionary record, personal, palatable, ambitious and honest. The calibre of guest stars didn’t hurt, of course (Jamie Foxx, Common, Ludacris, Talib Kweli, Jay-Z, also credited as executive producer), but this was essentially all his own work. A star was born. I knew nothing about him when I first listened to the LP, but plenty by the time I’d finished.

He’s not the first rapper to thank God, but there’s something almost militantly theist about Jesus Walks, far away the best track on the album and a hymn to convert any unbeliever. It had me at the military “Order Arms!” at the beginning. Remember, I’m the bloke who bought the Full Metal Jacket soundtrack album on the strength of Abigail Mead (Vivian Kubrick) and Nigel Goulding’s title song, which adds a modern beat to R. Lee Ermey’s drill instruction and attendant Marine call-and-response. The Bill Murray comedy Stripes was the first time I’d encountered the melodic singing of square-bashing US platoons but it kindled my imagination. Jesus Walks, built upon a similar marching rhythm, also samples Walk With Me, performed by The ARC (Addicts Rehabilitation Center) Choir and (Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go by Curtis Mayfield. If there’s a message above, it’s that God is good.

It is to West’s credit that a lyric which had singlehandedly failed to win him a record deal during his wilderness period because open Christianity wasn’t “marketable” in a world of 50 Cent (West would have the last laugh there) should be so robustly and thumpingly framed in song. If you’d never heard Kanye before this tune, you’d be intrigued by his opening remarks: “We at war, we at war with terrorism, racism … but most of all, we at war with ourselves.”

Now, I was still visiting Northampton regularly when the Jesus Army became a ubiquitous sight around town in their camouflaged bus and have long associated Christians with soldiers, “marching as to war.” Jesus Walks is a natural progression of that association and makes a compelling rap: “God, show me the way because the Devil’s tryin’-a beat me down!”, he implores, that voice gritty and honeyed at the same time, angry and beatific. Not big on cussing, West has his urban cake and eats it by affecting the cry of “Niggaz!” [EXPLICIT CONTENT] as if it were some kind of echo and not him uttering it in the stanza:

Where restless [niggaz!] might snatch yo’ necklace
And next these
[niggaz!] might jack yo’ Lexus
Somebody tell these
[niggaz!] who Kanye West is

Third person: always a warning sign of megalomania, but we’ll let it pass. Such intrigues are common on this record, which is lyrically fleet and thematically grounded. When he talks of being “breathless”, he draws breath and wheezes in a way that will spook asthmatics everywhere, every time. He compares the way he believes in Jesus to “the way school needs teachers” and “the way Kathie Lee needed Regis” (a reference to the syndicated morning TV hosts). If he is testifying, he displays the common touch, insisting he “ain’t here to argue about His facial features,” or to “convert atheists into believers.”

He’s no angel after all, as implied by his fear of talking to God when it’s been “so long” since his last confession, or ecumenical equivalent.

It’s a pretty direct and inclusive concoction. The march time. The instructions. The shopping list of “hustlas, killas, murderas, drug dealas, even tha strippers”, accompanied by the choir invisible’s firm assurance: Jesus walks with them. For an artist-producer with all the tricks of the motherboard at his disposal, he and his collaborators are more than capable of stripping back and striking a line through some of the excesses that would dog his subsequent output.

It wasn’t long before West became the scourge of awards ceremonies, invading the stage when he didn’t win, and in the most famous case, interrupting Taylor Swift (“I’m-a let you finish”) and bloodsucking her moment of glory in 2006. Kanye the oxygen thief was not a good look. I could have lived with these antics if his music hadn’t started to reflect this messianic tendency.

It’s a free country and the lifestyle is not the artist (I didn’t go off Woody Allen’s films because of that business with his step-daughter, but because his films went bad). Kanye West can marry a woman from a reality show, start his own fast food franchise, design shoes, and it wouldn’t matter. But when a musician becomes more famous for being famous than for being a musician, I instinctively find myself looking elsewhere for stimulation. (It is not a pose to say that I didn’t really know who Kim Kardashian was for some years into her reign. The day I started writing this entry, her photograph was on the front of most of the smaller-format national newspapers, because you can see the whole of her large bum in it.)

None of which vampires the phenomenal impact of The College Dropout, or the aftershock of its follow-up Late Registration, whose singles Touch The Sky, Gold Digger and Diamonds From Sierra Leone shone brightly. One critic described Kanye’s arrival as “post-thug”, and I guess that’s why it felt as refreshing as De La Soul once did. But De La Soul never embarrassed themselves. Or sold their souls to Auto-Tune.

Remember him this way. After all, Woody Allen pulled one out of the hat with Midnight In Paris.

Elbow, Any Day Now (2001)

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Artist: Elbow
Title: Any Day Now
Description: EP track, The Any Day Now EP; album track, Asleep In The Back
Label: Ugly Man; V2
Release date: 2001
First heard: 2001

Guy, Craig, Mark, Pete, Jupp: the five of them had been a band since 1990 when four of them were 16, one of them 14, and Elbow by name since 1997. By 2001, when their debut album was released, they’d already recorded another one, for Island, which had been canned when the band were dropped, although half a dozen of its songs were re-recorded for Asleep In The Back. This long-player was, then, a long time coming. Perhaps that’s why it’s so solid, so thought-through, so cohesive, and why the band sound like they’ve been playing together for ten years.

They had me at the opening track. In fact, they had me at Craig’s opening church chord on the opening track. Once drummer Richard Jupp and bassist Pete Turner unite for that unsettling riff of spellbinding rimshot and seismic grumble, I’m Elbow’s for the taking, and Guy hasn’t even started cooing like a choirboy yet. Any Day Now is among my favourite Track 1, Side 1’s of all time. It set out a stall that I wanted to browse, and for all of Elbow’s achievements artistic, commercial and headlining in the glory years since, it’s the supplier I return to when in need of a restock.

“What’s got into me?” he asks. “Can’t believe myself. Must be someone else. Must be somewhere else.”

Garvey is a man at sea. He hangs suspended. Cold limbo. He’s a man alive but a man alone. And yet … from this slough of despond, the plaintive innocence of his soprano fills the sky with hope. The hope of “getting out of this place.” Any day now, in fact. The phrase “How’s about” may have taken on uninvited echoes of Savile, but we couldn’t be in safer hands. Isolated our protagonist may be, but he’s soon enveloped in sympathetic voices as what we used to call a “round” starts to make the room revolve, until the mantra becomes his safehouse:

Any day now, how’s about getting out of this place, anyways, got a lot of spare time, some of my youth and all of my senses on overdrive, any day now, how’s about getting out of this place, anyways, got a lot of spare time, some of my youth and all of my senses on overdrive …

First tracks of first albums often sounds like something a band have been building up to and rehearsing for all of their lives, but rarely do they sound as boldly understated, as casually assured and as sparingly worded as Any Day Now, and rarely are they six minutes in length. (That’s more a last track, isn’t it?) If it is a manifesto at all, it is equally a stab in the dark. And dark it was at the beginning of this benighted century, when the world was in turmoil and British music was hanging on for dear life. Elbow, who’d planned to emerge in the previous millennium but were thwarted from doing so, sound ready to save the world, or at least anyone who had a heart.

When I interviewed Elbow for Word in 2008, post-Mercury, Jupp had this to tell me about the band’s inability to assess their own work: “We can’t be objective about it. This is the only thing we’ve done in our adult lives. We cannot analyse it. You can’t step back from it.”

I can, and while Asleep In The Back is – with the benefit of hindsight – markedly more Gothic than its successors and pre-anthemic, it was not willfully difficult or awkward (except perhaps Bitten By The Tailfly, their taproom Tom Waits wonk-out). It’s distinctly lovely, in fact. Spooky, dusky, melancholy and regally slow for the most part (got a lot of spare time), with Garvey’s voice sealed in the amber of echo; as much piano- as guitar-led, and swathed in Northern English ennui, it it unafraid of tipping the five-minute mark. And it begins with Any Day Now.

Any day now, how’s about getting out of this place, anyways, got a lot of spare time, some of my youth and all of my senses on overdrive, any day now, how’s about getting out of this place, anyways, got a lot of spare time, some of my youth and all of my senses on overdrive …

He was wrong when he called for one day like this a year to see him right. One day is not enough. With Elbow’s back catalogue, you get a whole calender. Starting with a church chord.

 

Johnny Cash, Hurt (2002)

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Artist: Johnny Cash
Title: Hurt
Description: album track, American IV: The Man Comes Around
Label: American Recordings
Release date: 2002
First heard: 2002

Everyone I know
Goes away in the end

Johnny Cash died, aged 71, on 12 September 2003, in Baptist Hospital in Nashville. I was on the air the next day on 6 Music and had a copy of his most recent album, American IV: The Man Comes Around, to hand. I played his movingly spare claim on Vera Lynn’s wartime spiritual We’ll Meet Again, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

I’d come to Cash late, but so many of us did. I remember in my first months in the art room of the NME producing a page layout marking a new Johnny Cash covers album for the Terence Higgins Trust by various “approved” artists – Michelle Shocked, Sally Timms, David McComb, Voice Of The Beehive, the Mekons, Marc Riley – and recognising the visual power of the Man In Black, whose image formed a striking half-tone backdrop to the text. I will have been aware of his greatest hits, but perhaps not fully up to speed with his fast life and times. Dropped from Columbia in the 80s, he went from country superstar and world-famous outlaw to sepulchral cult figure, and it took U2 (who invited him in from the cold for a cameo on Zooropa) and Rick Rubin to fully rehabilitate him for a new generation. Mine.

It was Cash’s hospitalisation in the mid-90s that coloured his second two Rubin albums, American III: Solitary Man and American IV: The Man Comes Around (with that fatalistic title track), and among the stunt covers found on those two splendid albums, it is surely Hurt by Nine Inch Nails that most convincingly and acutely sums up the condition his condition was in. The original suicide note was posted on Trent Reznor’s multimillion-selling second album The Downward Spiral in 1994, which served to cook down his industrial disco into a fine, reduced sauce – a concept album, no less. Hurt closes that album, and effects to end the life of its protagonist. Not an untwitching eye in the house. But what Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin did with it, and to it, casts the original into the middle distance.

Cash’s ripe old age, the ravages of neurodegenerative atrophy, and the likelihood of the Man Coming Around (he would come first for Cash’s wife, June Carter) combine to engrave Reznor’s depressive theatre permanently into granite. Not since Love Will Tear Us Apart had a song sounded so much like an epitaph in waiting.

Consider the difference in your gut reaction to these same words sung by a 29-year-old multi-instrumental prodigy from Pennsylvania and a dying septuagenarian icon who’d grown up in the cotton fields of Arkansas during the Depression:

I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel …
I focus on the pain
The only thing that’s real
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting …

Reznor’s needle is hypodermic, and so is Cash’s, but whereas one threatens opiate oblivion, the other promises pain relief, perhaps even administered by a health professional. The damage done is the same. How profound to hear a lament of urban Gen-X loneliness transformed into a housebound elegy to old age. This cover – if “cover” isn’t too flimsy a word – is surely the polar opposite of Lou Reed’s Perfect Day being turned into a celebration of the BBC licence fee in 1997, its original meaning laid waste in the process (and by consent of the author). Or the Clash’s London Calling being eviscerated and de-clawed by Scouting For Girls in the concert at Buckingham Palace for the Cultural Olympiad in August 2008 (I can hardly bear to re-live the hurt; Strummer’s ghost is still spinning).

To say that Cash’s Hurt is the musical equivalent of the sequel that’s better than the original is to reduce the transubstantiative power of interpretation down to a competition. Both versions abide. The song is the thing. (I have never heard Leona Lewis’s version, but I don’t think I need to.) If Reznor is all about synthetic, cinematic FX, Cash is all about found sound. His rendition begins with just voice and what sounds to my layman’s ear to be a single guitar on a lap. Chords are picked out. The voice croaks its confessions (“I will let you down, I will make you hurt”), and the two coalesce. Rubin’s pin-sharp production allows us to hear the moisture being summoned up in Cash’s mouth as he contemplates his own “going away in the end”.

When he sings, “I remember everything“, he mines greater depth than Reznor, having walked this earth since 1932 and threatened to leave it prematurely more than once (out of it, he walked into a cave in Tennessee in 1968 with no intention of coming out again, but – as he tells it – God entered his heart and gave him the extra gas in the tank to follow the light to the exit). When he inquires, of his “sweetest friend”, “What have I become?”, he might be asking God himself – or the other fella. As they square off, a bystander might be forgiven for asking, “Who’s the guy with Johnny Cash?”

Mortality stalks Hurt like a ghost at a wedding. “You could have it all,” sounds like our man preparing to do a deal, and a jabbed piano and second guitar underline the importance of what’s afoot. The arrangement, Gothic, overwrought, final, clangs like a church bell, before draining back to one man and his guitar again for the second verse. The old quiet-loud dynamic from grunge serves him well. And then, the only change. Reznor’s “crown of shit” is replaced by Cash’s “crown of thorns”, for reasons of decency, perhaps? Or piety? A fluting synth steers this verse into the climactic chorus, where all hell breaks loose. If your heart isn’t in your mouth by now, you might want to check you have one.

We’re going through a tunnel. “I would find … a way.”

Reznor was gracious enough to say this about Cash’s version of his song: “I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in … That winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure.” His conclusion is ours: “That song isn’t mine anymore.”

I haven’t even mentioned the video.

Radiohead, Idioteque (2000)

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Artist: Radiohead
Title: Idioteque
Description: album track, Kid A
Label: Parlophone
Release date: 2000
First heard: 2000

It seems convenient, but you’re going to have to believe me. I fell for Radiohead when, during their support slot at the Astoria in London on October 9, 1992, Jonny Greenwood played those three “dead notes” on his guitar and the non-hit single Creep lurched into life. They were supporting The Frank & Walters, and their PR, Philip Hall, a man I liked and respected enormously, had talked me into coming with him to see Radiohead, whose first releases had not lit my fire, and who in my memory were playing to a virtually empty Astoria that night, but I may have idealised this detail.

From that day forward, I was essentially theirs. A fan of Pablo Honey when it was released in early 1993, I got to meet them before they were famous when they took me in their Transit to play a gig at Glamorgan University in Treforest, South Wales. They were polite and welcoming at whichever of them’s pleasantly appointed Oxford house we met in, and I was served hot, buttered toast made of thickly-sliced bread. Thom Yorke was harder to decode than the assorted Greenwoods, but I interviewed him alone in the back of the van at the university and a shared art school education bonded us. The “angle” for the piece I wrote for Select (headlined, “Super Creep”) was that Yorke represented a new, square-peg kind of indie “star”. Within two years, he was a star without speechmarks.

Come the end of the century, Radiohead were British music’s saving grace. Along with the Manics, they saw me through the Millennium. And Kid A was, for me, their first masterpiece. It remains a dizzying fusion of substance and style, ideas and technique, function and decoration, an experiment that worked, a bonfire of vanities that for most bands wouldn’t have even amounted to vanities that lit up the sky and a new leaf that wasn’t the same as the old leaf. Kid A reigns supreme. And of its ten tracks, Idioteque sums up its jagged glory in five tightly wound minutes.

On the back of a frantic, caffeinated electronic beat recalling Fad Gadget, what apparently originated with Jonny but was put through the Thom Yorke mincer before its oblique strategies could be unveiled to the world, Idioteque gets right under your skin with a remarkably rudimentary layering of ambient hum and interference, a mechanical concerto of rattling, shaking and shuffling.

Yorke’s snuffled, muffled distress signals may or may not presage a coming global apocalypse, but certainly conjure bunkers, an Ice Age and whatever emergency drill insists that women and children go first (“and the children, and the children”). Yorke’s first child – rather touchingly christened Noah – was not yet born when Idioteque was conceived, but it’s tempting to divine thoughts of fatherhood bubbling beneath the itchy surfaces of Kid A, and the anxiety about the future that starting a family engenders. With 21st century Radiohead particularly, it often feels like the end of days, even if the toast is thickly-sliced and hotly buttered. See them live – and I saw Idioteque essayed at Earls Court on the Hail To the Thief tour in November 2003, truly a night to remember – and your first impressions will not be of a traditional five-piece band, but of an industrial unit, busy with their machinery and infrastructure (too busy to face the audience, certainly, and often wrapped up in some function or maintenance side of stage that’s so pressing they just cannot tear themselves away).

The tumultuous “Ice Age coming, Ice Age coming” passage is what recorded music is all about, those multi-tracked vocals suggesting a choice invisible at a moment of existential truth. Rattling like a little girl’s toy, it makes you jerk your elbows, it makes you think, it makes Thom Yorke enter the same seizure-like state of grace that once possessed Ian Curtis. It’s surely an explicit reference to the nightmarish rape of Rosemary Woodhouse by Satan himself when Yorke intones, “This is really happening” (as in, “This is no dream, this is really happening” in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby – end of days, once again), but it might just be a thumbed nose to climate change deniers. You deconstruct Radiohead’s lyrics at your own peril.

That all of this industry conspires to create something as delicately balanced, emotionally affecting and ultimately human as anything on Kid A and its less socialised brother Amnesiac, but Idioteque in particular, is all the testament you should require that Radiohead are not as other bands. When they released Pablo Honey and I went down the M4 with them and Yorke had yet to grow the peroxide out of his hair, they were still as some other bands, but not for long.

Hey, Creep‘s a great song, too, but “everything all of the time”? No contest.

Beastie Boys, An Open Letter To NYC (2004)

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Artist: Beastie Boys
Title: An Open Letter To NYC
Description: single; track from To The 5 Boroughs
Label: Capitol
Release date: 2004; 2005
First heard: 2004

Dear New York, I know a lot has changed
Two towers down, but you’re still in the game

It may seem obscure to go off-doctrine and overlook those cultural-landscaping early Beastie Boys singles like (You’ve Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party), No Sleep ’Till Brooklyn and The New Style, or even the more mature, accomplished bells/whistles direction personified by the likes of Sabotage and Intergalactic, but what’s not even the lead-off but the third single from their sixth album, To The 5 Boroughs, strikes me as one of their most important. This time it’s personal.

The album as a whole, self-produced and recorded between 2002 and 2004 while the cosmic and actual dust was still settling after the September 11 attacks, acts as a love letter to their home city. By definition, this track amplifies that sentiment, a fluent and heartfelt lyrical adventure around the landmarks of their misspent youth and a moving tribute to the diverse populations that make New York the melting pot it has always been (“Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin/Black, white, New York, you make it happen”). Aside from Bleecker Bob’s and Battery Park, I don’t even recognise all the local namechecks, but this just makes them more evocative: the Deuce, Blimpies, Fulton Street Mall, the L.I.E., the B.Q.E., I could look them up but that would let light in on magic.

I remember going nuts for this the moment I heard it, and playing it excitedly on Roundtable on 6 Music, whereby guest Stewart Lee remained unmoved as he felt that much of its appeal lay in the driving guitar riff appropriated from The Dead Boys’ Sonic Reducer. He really is a curmudgeon. The use of that riff is part of its genius; likewise the opening stab of New York’s My Home by Broadway star Robert Goulet (“Listen, all you New Yorkers”). The construction of the song around the Dead Boys lick, with a clicky beat and the Beasties’ trademark drawling three-way rap, is simplicity itself, and allows for close examination of the lyric, which is the heart of the tune: “Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens and Staten/From the Battery to the top of Manhattan …”

It’s nostalgic, defiant, together and stirring. And their sixth album is way better than it probably has any right to be (Rolling Stone awarded it five stars). Michael Gillette’s stark line drawing of a New York skyline that includes the Twin Towers is poignant, too. (His artwork was followed through to related sleeves – including the one pictured – and promos.)

The list of American songs written and released in response to 9/11 is unsurprisingly long; everyone from Sheryl Crow and Living Colour to Neil Young and Sleater-Kinney. Springsteen wrote a whole album. But I would nominate An Open Letter as the finest, funkiest and least mawkish I’ve heard from the locals.