Lana Del Rey, Radio (2012)

LanaDelReyBornToDieAlbumCover

Artist: Lana Del Rey
Title: Radio
Description: track, Born To Die
Label: Interscope/Polydor
Release date: 2012
First heard: 2012

Motherfuckin’ dreams on Ritalin

I still appreciate accredited lyrics and have done since the Smash Hits revolution of my early teens. When a freckly contemporary of Weston Favell Upper School called Stuart Skelton first introduced a copy of the pop mag into the playground, I was slap-bang smitten. This particular issue was dated June 14-27, 1979, which meant the fortnightly glossy publication was not yet six months out of the traps (and nor did I know that among its staff were a handful of young, witty men who would in my future employ me to do what they were already doing). It had Donna Summer on the cover and tantalising promise of the words to Up The Junction, Are ‘Friends’ Electric, Ring My Bell and Masquerade within. To my knowledge, I didn’t miss an issue until the late 80s and only then because I had by then fixed my sights on the inky music press and brooked no argument from Black Type and Bev Hillier.

Within that first year of plighting my troth to Smash Hits it was with deep existential horror that the magazine confessed that the lyrics it had printed to Duchess by the Strangers (a single I’d bought) had been procured by listening with the head pressed against a speaker rather than sourced from the record company. I still distinctly remember the phrase “Dutch of the terrace” when my own ears told me it was “Duchess the terrace.” I’d like to say I never trusted them again. But I did.

We live now in an age of one-click, one-swipe everything. Ironically, this guarantees neither quality nor veracity. You’re as likely to encounter bluffed, phonetic, inaccurate lyrics on a lyric site as verse-chorus poetry directly sent directly down the pipe from a song’s copyright owners. I resent that. If I wanted poorly transcribed lyrics I’d transcribe them poorly myself. Which brings me to Radio by Lana Del Rey and Lana Del Rey in general.

I took a flyer on this cinematic-seeming new artiste in 2012, ignoring the nagging voice in my head that told me I was too old for this type of thing: a willowy young woman with an apparently fake ID and Hollywood-esque backstory – take your pick from a buffet of waitressing, teenage dyspepsia, pseudonyms, Catholicism, the Bronx, a hippy uncle and aunt, a degree in metaphysics – and a fabulously smoky, sneering vocal style. I wasn’t interested in her CV, but I liked her style. The singles – and there were a gluttonous, Thriller-approaching six –  from her second album Born to Die cast their net and I took the shiny bait. Whether she was real or fake, Del Rey’s record felt raw and ambitious and fiercely grown-up behind that varnished Lolita outer shell (“swinging in the backyard/Pull up in your fast car”). And in one track, Radio, she sang so sweetly and melodically about “motherfuckin’ dreams on Ritalin” (hence: not a single). These were word combinations that interested me.

Well, guess what? She wasn’t singing that at all. After closer examination and with no Smash Hits to consult, I became convinced she wasn’t even swearing in that stanza from the song’s knockout chorus. I’m a grown man. I’m not impressed by strong language from the start per se, but I respect the commercial self-harm of building in a bad swear – not least if it discounts putting out a seventh single from an album that only contains 12 tracks. Anyhoo, here’s the apparently definitive couplet, which is only marginally less poetic than my misheard version:

Now my life is sweet like cinnamon
Like a fucking dream I’m living in
Baby love me ’cause I’m playing on the radio

Be honest. It’s the syncopated, rhetorical question, “How do ya like me now?” that tips the chorus into invincibility. Del Rey is a natural wordsmith. She bullseyes again with, “Lick me up and take me like a vitamin,” which is an original come-on, steeped in the modern world of snowflake millennials. Then she’s claiming her body’s “sweet like sugar-venom, oh yeah.” This is beat poetry, man. The blank look of a blank generation she wears on the album’s sleeve sort of dares you to reflect it back. She isn’t going to be the first to blink in a stare-off. She’s a kohl-eyed JFK. She’s a poolside Svengali. Her name’s the name of a bar or a rodeo or a turnpike.

Songwriters are involved throughout the LP, sourced from as far apart as Lincolnshire, Warrington, Palo Alto and New Jersey – not to mention where genial Jim Irvin, former music journalist, editor and frontman of Furniture, hails from in London – but Del Rey’s family surname Grant is a constant. This is her truth, even if it isn’t true.

The arrangement is strewn around gossamer ambience and deep echo, combined with crunching beats, and it’s simultaneously chilly and warm. How do they achieve that? No matter. She sings, “Now I’m in LA and it’s paradise,” and your spider-sense tingles: has this apparently non-fictional character found peace beneath the chlorine? So soon?

I’ve realised that Lana Del Rey is for Christmas as well as for life. How do ya like me now?

 

 

OutKast, Hey Ya! (2003)

OutkastHeyYa

Artist: OutKast
Title: Hey Ya!
Description: single; track, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
Label: LaFace/Arista
Release date: 2003
First heard: 2003

1, 2, 3, uh!

In his knockout book Uncommon People, the sage-like David Hepworth notes that “the age of the rock star” – his chosen subject – “was coterminous with rock and roll, which in spite of all the promises made in some memorable songs proved to be as finite as the era of ragtime or big bands.” His introduction concludes, “The rock era is over. We now live in a hip hop world.”

Cue:

My baby don’t mess around
Because she loves me so
And this I know for sho’

It is not with disdain or regret that David reports the death of rock, nor the ascension of hip hop, merely acknowledgement of fact. The subculture that grew exponentially into a culture, or arguably the culture, was founded on the art of rapping, the overhaul of the traditional modus of the vinyl turntable, pre-digital sampling and a deep base of African-American heritage that would drive what started at local block parties into the mainstream, international arena.

Don’t try to fight the feeling

The centre of gravity initially bounced from East coast to West, ricocheting between the South Bronx and South Central fairly constantly throughout the 80s, with gangsta rap eventually eclipsing New York and forging a new orthodoxy for the 90s based on questionable male sexual politics, the entrepreneurial and criminal accumulation of money, and fame and fortune for their own sake. As the industry craned for new sounds, new colours, new stars, the belated emergence of Southern hip-hop was inevitable, and two teens named André Benjamin (“Andre 3000”) and Antwan Patton (“Big Boi”) emerged from a nascent scene in Atlanta, Georgia, funkier and more free-wheeling than the West Coast shoot-’em-up style and with an attractive drawl. They went platinum before I’d ever heard of them, and I make no apology for that. I got them in the year 2000, like most people did.

Thank God for Mom and Dad
For sticking two together

Stankonia was neither OutKast’s debut album, nor their second, nor their third, but their fourth. Full marks if you were already following their origins story and could see it coming. I did not. I heard the backmasked, social-realist, Wagner’s Wedding March-sampling Ms Jackson in October 2000 when it lolloped to number one in the US and two in the UK. Having left Q magazine, I may well have paid good money for the parent LP and I was sold on all 73 minutes of its contents: melodic, meaningful, not always languid, packed with diversity, hard to tear your ears from, and quadruple-platinum, Grammy-trousering successful.

Having invested in their own studio after album #3, the heat was off and they’d allowed themselves a year to make Stankonia. They claim to have deliberately stopped listening to hip hop in lieu of listening to rock’n’roll, soul and funk. It shows. Shame about the blunts and the loose women (“Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha we love deez hoez”), but enlightenment does not descend overnight.

And the pair hadn’t peaked. Three years later, they returned with a double album, and not just a double album but two solo albums, one each. Speakerboxx is Big Boi, whose modus operandi is to jam at home in LA for just under an hour; The Love Below is Benjamin and runs for 78 minutes. Both feature guest stars (Big Boi ropes in Killer Mike, Ludacris, Jay-Z and Cee-Lo; Benjamin has Norah Jones and Kelis) and – so much for the trial separation – each appears on the other’s disc. This is nothing new. Nary a single solo record by any ex-Beatle or member of the Stones comes without the casual appearance of a fellow ex-Beatle or member of the Stones, or both.

The commercial and creative crux of not just this album but the duo’s entire glittering career is Hey Ya! The ninth track on The Love Below, it thus by rights belongs to Benjamin. He recorded and self-produced it in Atlanta and Los Angeles, apparently free-forming the lyrics, which read like the schizophrenic breakdown of a man who cannot decide how to play the relationship he’s in. From one line to the next he flips between thinking he’s got it, then fearing that he hasn’t: “Oh, you think you’ve got it, but ‘got it’ just don’t get it at all.” He and his partner are “together … but separate’s always better.”

No wonder he gives up and gives in to a two-word assessment.

Hey ya! Hey ya!

Benjamin, fleet of tongue, gets this poem of faith and doubt across like the actor he always wanted to be. You can almost imagine his acting coach encouraging him to dig deep: “So why oh why oh, why oh why oh are we so in denial when we know we’re not happy here?”

In case this is all sounding solipsistic, remember it’s laid across a thumping, hand-clapping, squelching-synth pop masterpiece that’s so confident in its authority it runs on a strummed acoustic guitar and sh-shakes it like a Polaroid picture. The author acknowledges this: “Y’all don’t want to hear me, you just want to dance.” Correct. Hey Ya! is one of the greatest pop songs of the 21st century, borne of every bloodline and bassline that merged to put black history back at the front of the book. But Benjamin has to be playing it for parody when he claims he “don’t want to meet your daddy”, but wants you in his Caddy, and neither does he want to “meet your mama”, he just wants to “make you cumma,” a line about the female orgasm being played on a mainstream radio station as we speak somewhere in the world, right now.

Having placed this mighty oak of a single into context – and the single’s genre-bending appearance on Billboard’s Modern Rock Charts tells us all we need to know about its crossover appeal – I have to say I never really followed up with OutKast. OutKast did, with an equivalent hit from Speakerboxx, The Way You Move, which also went to number one and in fact neatly replaced Hey Ya!, and Roses, which I never liked (“roses really smell like boo boo”), but united the pair as it’s the only track on The Love Below that also features Big Boi. I know, sweet. Lend me some sugar, I am your neighbour!

OutKast split after a failed period gangster movie and soundtrack proved unable to generate any sugar (and was, ironically, set in the era of ragtime and big bands), although Benjamin does seem to be carving out an acting career after valiantly playing Hendrix in a biopic with no rights to his music.

In a hip-hop world, the pre-hip-hop artists are played by hip-hop artists.

 

Arcade Fire, Rebellion (Lies) (2004)

ArcadeFireFuneral

Artist: Arcade Fire
Title: Rebellion (Lies)
Description: single; track, Funeral
Label: Merge/Rough Trade
Release date: 2004
First heard: 2004

On Saturday 17 March, 2007, I ventured southwest to Brixton Academy to see Arcade Fire play live on their fourth consecutive sell-out night at one of my favourite London venues with it proscenium arches and ski-slope floor. I had loved them on first listen, deeply involved with this gawky Montreal-coalesced co-op of Ontarians, Québéquoise and itinerants Californians since hearing their first-album-proper Funeral in 2004, and, with a regular weekday show on the nascent 6 Music, I had experienced them on heavy rotation, and backpedalled to their debut EP Arcade Fire. Twelve people had participated in creating the EP (or mini-album if you wish to haggle over semantic precedent); 15 were credited on Funeral, although the band’s nucleus was six. When they tour, they are these days between 12 and 14, but on that night they were 11. Like Downton Abbey, they have two Butlers.

I regarded my first Arcade Fire show as a pilgrimage, as I had started to get out less in the new century. By 2007, I was picking and choosing very carefully. According to the review I posted on my mothership blog Never Knowingly Underwhelmed, I piped their current album Neon Bible into my head on the train journey there, and Funeral on the train journey home. “I knew in my bones, and from what I’ve read, that it would be a semi-religious experience, and when I saw the huge church organ onstage, reassurance set in,” I wrote. (“Look at that organ and shit,” exclaimed an eloquent young student standing behind me.)

An even age range and gender split confirmed the Canadian or adopted-Canadian arts-lab as a thoroughly modern proposition. I noted a lot of people wearing glasses (I, at that stage, did not), all the better to see the band with. I felt part of a congregation of other believers, eyes wide open, ready to embrace and take communion. I only saw beer fly twice that night (I’d grown used to this sticky expression of joy at Arctic Monkeys shows), but both liquid explosions occurred during the encore, as if the real dicks could contain their excitement no longer. There was relatively aggressive moshing, but where I was standing, polite jigging on the spot was de rigueur.

Neon Bible was at number two in the UK album charts that week, behind the Kaiser Chiefs’ Yours Truly, Angry Mob, suggesting that the transition from airborne lager to Boots lens-wipes was not yet a done deal. More impressively perhaps, the Bible was also at number two in the Billboard album charts, behind Notorious BIG’s Greatest Hits. I deduced that perhaps an album about death (“working for the church while your family dies”) can never beat an album propelled by death. They foregrounded the current record that night, naturally, but the selections from Funeral proved crowd-pleasers: Power Out rain straight into Rebellion/Lies, and my world was complete.

Whether live or on record, the secret to Arcade Fire’s hope and glory is its expansiveness, which is neither forced nor over-calculated. Their best songs seem to grow to fill every nook of your attention as they go along. Even if they’re singing about the power being out in the heart of man or a great black wave in the middle of the sea they seem to do so with a unifying melancholy joy, or a joyful melancholy. Like a Charlie Chaplin film, they love being sad.

It’s hard to argue with the logic of that sequenced, near-consecutive run on Funeral, vis-à-vis the four numbered versions of Neighborhood – Nos. #1 #2 #3 and #4, subtitled Tunnels, Laika, Power Out and 7 Kettles (the first three released as singles, in numerical order!) – but if you think the record has peaked too early, Wake Up alerts you for what I consider to be the real deal: namely, Rebellion (Lies), again subtitled as if it’s the first Rebellion to make the grade. It takes everything we’ve heard and triples it.

I admire a song that starts with a bare, dull thud of a bass drum (I’m used to hearing it within the album, so it actually emerges from the siren-like squall at the end of Haiti), but that’s Arcade Fire all over. They’re builders. They’re layerers. They’re crescendo-seekers. They Icarus their way up, beyond sensible parameters and see how much further out there they can get without losing the tune. There are a lot of them. The drum marches through the preamble, created using I don’t know what instruments to form a kind of crackle, underpinned by that thump-thump-thump-offbeat!-thump. A bassline curls around it, then a clanky, Low-style piano. Butler’s first appearance.

Sleeping is giving in
No matter what the time is

A sentiment only available to a young man (Butler will have been in his early 20s when he wrote it), the song taps into mortality, in common with the entire suite of songs on Funeral, a work haunted by the death of relatives – grandparents in the main, although let us not dismiss this as the self-indulgence of youth: when your grandparents start to die, you’re one generation closer to the final curtain. Further on in the lyric, which gets into your skull through joyful repetition, Butler speaks of “hiding the night underneath the covers,” as if regressing to childhood, then jarringly flashes forward to hiding “your lovers, underneath the covers.” He’s adjusting the speed of life, experimenting, missing out great chunks in order to better understand the journey ahead to oblivion. The accompaniment rattles and hums around his chest-beating performance, augmented at every turn by more music. It swirls with Régine Chassange’s violin and parenthetical vocal (“Lies! Lies!”); there are handclaps, there is foot stomping, there are key changes, it’s a hoedown at a wake. When it ends, as life for all of us must, there is more scratching, as if behind sore eyelids.

Reminder: this is a band’s first album.

They don’t sample and sequence – or at least, they didn’t in their more artisanal incarnation, prior to Reflektor in late 2013 – they just play and play and play. Rebellion (Lies) is a memorial and a rebirth.

It was a hit in the UK – broke the Top 20, long before the band were solvent in Canada or the US – and abides as the band’s go-to encore. You may say I’ve not exactly dug deep here – especially with so much wonder still to come from The Suburbs and Everything Now – but I return to it again and again and again. And it still makes my heart leap.

Now here’s the sun, it’s alright!
Now here’s the moon, it’s alright!

Don’t have nightmares.

Sleaford Mods, Face to Faces (2015)

sleafordmodskeymarkets

Artist: Sleaford Mods
Title: Face to Faces
Description: track, Key Markets
Label: Harbinger Sound
Release date: 2015
First heard: 2015

Get me: I hosted a premiere at Cineworld in Birmingham for the big-screen, red-carpet premiere of the first episode in the second series of BBC Two’s Peaky Blinders. In my ice-breaking introduction, I played self-effacingly to the predominantly Brummie audience by revealing that I was born and raised in the East Midlands, “the second sexiest half of the Midlands.” I was joking, of course.

You run a crap club in Brum, you lose

In truth, the hoary heritage of the Midlands is as long as your arm; Birmingham (cradle of heavy metal), Stourbridge (grebo), Wolverhampton (Morrissey’s first solo gig), Coventry (2-Tone) and Stoke (Robbie Williams) have the West sewn up, while the East provides back-up through my own hometown Northampton (Bauhaus) and nearby Leicester (Mark Morrison, Family, Showaddywaddy, Cornershop, Kasabian). The once-impenetrably chewy accent heard around Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Lincolnshire has been belatedly enshrined in popular culture through the dialectic patchwork of This is England. But the East needs a mascot. Two, ideally.

Face to faces, alive

Sleaford Mods, named after the Lincolnshire town near Grantham, where Margaret Thatcher began her long walk to Finchley, are a siren call, a last exit, a final comedown and a stab in the dark all in one, or two. The duo, who’ve been around the bloc at least twice if not thrice (they are both in their late-to-mid-40s at time of going to press), semantic street preacher Jason Williamson, born in Grantham, and DJ, tunesmith and wiggler Andrew Fearn, born in Staffs but raised in rural Lincs, carry the weight of town and country on their shoulders, and it resonates in both their flat vowels and their stripped-back style. It is written that the pair have known each other since 2009, working together since the fifth Sleaford Mods album Wank (and thus, in a sense, the first). They are defined by their own failure – if failure to find an audience can really be called a failure – but creating your own sound is not always an overnight eureka. (Many great bands have as much failure below the line as success above it – Pulp a good example – and not all arrive fully-formed – Elbow a case in point. Because life’s not like The X-Factor.)

Nick Clegg wants another chance – really?
This daylight robbery is now so fucking hateful
It’s accepted by the vast majority

I first heard them when most people outside of the toilet circuit did, through those subversive underground outlets 6 Music, BBC’s Glastonbury coverage and Later … with Jools Holland (“We don’t want radio play, we’re not fucking Cannon and Ball,” Williamson barks on In Quiet Streets). The singer, with his face like Michael Fassbender’s portrait in the attic, happily admitted in one interview that he was turned on to the post-punk Mod revival by seeing The Jam on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1978, so what goes around. Like the Woking Mods, Williamson, Fearn, a laptop and two crates arrived on television fully-baked, wound up and ready to play. With their self-described “coarse English music”, they were fast, furious and funny, not above calling you a “silly Billy”. At that stage I’d come to terms with the notion that Arctic Monkeys would be the last new band I would fall in love with from nought to obsessed with their chronicles of rubbish modern life. Seeing Sleaford Mods, I knew I was wrong.

It’s wise to assume that Williamson and Fearn hate whatever you love, especially if you love Blur. They might even hate Sleaford Mods, I don’t know, but they hate the way this country is sliding down the flue even more. They are old enough to know better. You could fill the vacuum inside Ed Sheeran with a hundredth of Sleaford Mods’ conviction and eloquence. But they do not operate on a level playing field, as much as Ed acts like a troubadour. While Ed has nothing to say, Sleaford Mods are biologically and ideologically incapable of saying nothing:

Is it right to analyze in a general sense the capital machine
Its workings and what they mean?
Passive articles on political debate
Its implications are fucking meaningless, mate

It goes without saying that Williamson transforms “fucking” into “fooking” and, later, “I’ll come out to you” to “Arl cum aht too yer“, and “You cunt” to “Yer coont.

New build, new bricks
New methods, old tricks

Why have I chosen Face to Faces as the definitive selection from their definitive album Key Markets? Because it does not deviate. With a fixed drumbeat, a perpetual Marxist bassline and a repeated mantra (“Face to faces“), its three-and-a-half minutes move from National Insurance to new-builds via Boris on a bike, your wife and shit you need to be pissed up to smoke, and its sinews and blood vessels strain to contain its message. Some of the best pop music bursts at the seams of production, and long may it; the jungle concrète of Sleaford Mods is defined by its parameters; Dogma 2015. What you hear is what you get. Other tracks on other albums do the same (BHS, Tiswas, No One’s Bothered, Rupert Trousers), but until Britain is fixed, even a Top 11 chart placing and increased volume in key markets won’t put out the fire. The names are changed to protest the ignorant but the punchline remains the same.

In dragging their concerns back to the original pirate material of English folk music and voicing them in their own voice, Sleaford Mods find a new vanishing point where a pre-industrial past meets a post-industrial future.

 

Arctic Monkeys, When The Sun Goes Down (2006)

Whenthesungoesdown

Artist: Arctic Monkeys
Title: When The Sun Goes Down
Description: single; track, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
Label: Domino
Release date: 2006
First heard: 2005

’E told Roxanne to put on her red light

Who the fuck were Arctic Monkeys? What right had this quartet of spotty Herberts from a genteel suburb of Sheffield to reconfigure the noughties with their “bangin’ tunes and DJ sets and dirty dancefloors”, “tracky bottoms tucked in socks” and a young George Formby serenading the red lights that “indicate doors are secure”? I’ll be honest: I’d given up with the 21st century in 2005, musically. I’d actually squared it with the cosmos that all the good music had been written and recorded. How greedy to hope for more! There were still back catalogues to complete, and hundreds of transfigurative old records from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s to listen to again and again and again. (And that was without facing up to the vast universe of pre-20th century classical music to finally burrow my way into.) In that unreal, post-Kid A wilderness, I was happy enough for Radiohead to be my final favourite band until my death.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked TV on the Radio, Franz Ferdinand and held a candle for the Beastie Boys in middle age, and I was still up for new names to me, like Clipse and MF Doom – I wasn’t a total Terpsichorean Luddite – and Arcade Fire seemed super-promising with Funeral, but I wasn’t expecting anything to blow me fully away. It was a workable state to be in. I’d even moved to Surrey by mistake, as if to make statute my withdrawal from the moshpit.

And then my wife alerted me to these demos a Yorkshire band had been giving away as downloads for free (this is the modern world), songs so catchy that audiences were already singing along to every word, despite nothing having been officially released (a long time ago there were pirates). I wasn’t even the first person in my house to “discover” Arctic Monkeys; indeed, I got into them just as they were about to go straight to number one in the proper UK charts with their dynamite second single I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor without anyone’s permission. But so besotted did I become, overnight, we used our own money to follow them around the UK and Europe, without a commission from a magazine or newspaper to justify the travel outlay. (Word subsequently asked me to write about how Arctic Monkeys had made me a music fan again, but it was not the sole purpose of my visits.) We flew to Cologne to catch them in a tiny club (priceless), and to Dublin for the first night of the Shockwaves NME Awards Tour, then to Sheffield for some home-game excitement at the university, and saw them again in London for the climax (the second time in my life I’d seen three dates on one tour – the first time was Curve). I was born again.

How come? Though I was technically going through the messy transition from my thirties to my forties, this was no mid-life crisis. Had Arctic Monkeys not come along – as eloquent, humorous and melodic as the Smiths, as evangelism-forming as the Stone Roses and Parklife-era Blur, as vital as The Fall, and as different as all four of those touchstone English bands had seemed when they first blocked out the sky, in the 80s and 90s, except with a hormonally-skinned frontman who sincerely addressed his audience as “ladies and gentlemen” – I’m sure I would still have paid good money to see Goldfrapp and Kasabian, but that would have been it. Arctic Monkeys lured me across bodies of water and thrilled me sufficiently to put up with the shower of beer that had been introduced into gig-going while I’d taken early retirement.

When The Sun Goes Down is the song of that hour because it does what all the best Arctic Monkeys songs do: starts quietly, spins a yarn, honours the local vernacular, shakes things up, batters your head and leaves you emotionally bruised, as well as actually. Turner, gently mocked at first for singing like a wartime concert party entertainer, but loved all the same, begins the song known by early adopters (us!) as Scummy, with just a few strums to accompany him.

Said ’o’s that girl there?
I wonder what went wrong so that she ’ad to walk the streets
She don’t take major credit cards, I doubt she does receipts
It’s all not quite legitimate

I know, it’s tiresome to elevate lyrics to the level of poetry, but that first stanza not only rivals it rhymes: streets, receipts. Turner has such a natural flair for making the English language flow, and he appreciates the nuances of how it sounds – the instinctive feel to drop the “h” from “who’s” and “had” but to harden the “t”s in “legitimate.” (Elsewhere, he bends the Yorkshire dialect to rhyme “say ’owt” so that it perfectly rhymes with “Mondeo” – a trick it’s hard to emulate unless you come from round there.) That he knows exactly when to drop the f-bomb is key, too, accenting his assumption of Roxanne being “fucking freezing” with primeval anger, if anger still being formulated and shaped by events in a young male’s mind. This is an indignant chronicle, a slice of life, a thousand words that paint a picture, mixing adolescent banter (“he’s got a nasty plan … he’ll rob you if he can … what a scummy man”) with old-head-young-shoulders reflection (“I start to wonder what his story might be”). The very notion of things changing when the sun goes down, and the fact that “they” say it, is more profound and poetic than anything Ed Sheeran will ever write.

Arctic Monkeys’ effortless virtuosity – Matt Helder’s impossible drumming, Jamie Cook’s incendiary, descriptive guitar, Turner’s wicked way with words, the entire gang’s ability to shoot straight – ought to have robbed them of much of their early, approachable charm, but it never did. It sustained them for three albums, after which they ran out of puff, but only briefly. With the grinding desert rock of fourth album AM, they were reborn in 2013. I had grown weary of beer spray by then, but loved their headliner at Glastonbury from the comfort of the sofa that year, with something approaching paternal pride.

I offer thanks to the three surviving Herberts from those early days of this century. Perhaps they will be my last favourite band before death.

Mind you, Sleaford Mods …

Kanye West, Jesus Walks (2004)

KayneWestCollegeD

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)

elbow-asleep-in-the-back

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.