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.

 

10cc, I’m Not In Love (1975)

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Artist: 10cc
Title: I’m Not In Love
Description: single; album track, The Original Soundtrack
Label: Mercury
Release date: 1975
First heard: 1975

10cc are one of those bands who soundtracked my youth without me really ever acknowledging them or knowingly parting with pocket money for any of their hit singles or parent albums. I guess this is partly because my first spurt in singles buying occurred towards the end of that decade, by which time it was “punk” or nothing. (We’d previously requested certain seven-inches “for the house”, which we kids thought of as “ours” and were wire-racked alongside Mum and Dad’s, under the wooden unit beneath the “music centre”. 10cc were not among these. (I remember In Dulci Jubilo by Mike Oldfield – backed by On Horseback – from around the mid-70s; also Under The Moon Of Love by Showaddywaddy; The First Cut Is The Deepest by Rod Stewart, which was nominally Mum’s; also Lay Your Love by Racey, which proves how unselfconscious I was in 1978 before punk stole my soul.)

Nevertheless, I’m Not In Love is a key song of the mid-decade, and one with a personal fascination for me that I’ll get to. A number one hit – the band’s second, after Rubber Bullets in 1971 – and ubiquitous on the airwaves at the time (we had Radio 1 on as a default in the house), it is only in retrospect that I appreciate what a technical triumph it was, pushing back the boundaries of studio technique as much as their heroes the Beatles had done. In adult life, I have come to respect Gouldman, Stewart, Godley and Creme as the witty and intelligent hitmakers they were, and a Best Of 10cc is, I find, an absolute essential. I don’t know their albums at all, not even The Original Soundtrack, which contains I’m Not In Love, by all accounts the song that clinched their $1 million contract with Mercury.

I now know – thanks to the constant repackaging of the pop and rock past by BBC4 – that its haunting choral effect was achieved in 1974 at the band’s own Strawberry Studios with each layer of voice recorded separately (all four band members are involved), until they had 256. Although the effect can now be reproduced at the click of a mouse – I can probably do it on this laptop – the sheer depth and richness of the choir is unique. This and a heartbeat of a drum line form the bed, upon which an unintrusive keyboard is added, and then that halting, delicate vocal from … is it Eric Stewart or Graham Gouldman? I know the whispered interlude was supplied by a receptionist at the studio, and it’s this passage (“Be quiet, big boys don’t cry”) that seals it forever into my heart.

Here’s why. As anyone who’s read Where Did It All Go Right? will know, I experienced an existential epiphany in 1975 when, aged 10, I saw The Poseidon Adventure at the cinema and looked mortality in the face for the first time. The mother of all disaster movies – my first – haunted me, and has remained a perpetual favourite. Somehow, in my mind, it and I’m Not In Love are intertwined. I saw the film at the very end of May, and the song was at number one a week later. A raw, full-blooded display of emotion in any case, it meant more to me as I imagined the female voice to be that of Shelley Winters’ character Belle Rosen, perhaps reassuring Eric Shea’s Robin at a moment of grisly, mortal, smudge-faced tension in the bowels of the SS Poseidon. I can almost see her, in the film, shushing him by touching his boyish lips, like a reassuring mom. It’s oddly disappointing that she doesn’t actually say, “Be quite, big boys don’t cry” in the film.

I love the way a song can become imprinted on a time and a place for all time. I am in love with this for all of the technical and musical reasons stated, but it goes that extra Proustian mile thanks to a random series of events and that’s the alchemy of cheap, potent pop music.