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A Stormlamp Against the Night
Magnum: Last Dance
I've been kind of depressed this week. It's hard to pinpoint exactly why. Part of it is the inevitable re-equilibrating taking place as my new job stops being new and becomes just my job, the raw thrill of my not being at my old job gradually ceding emotional space to the realization that the new one will be hard in its own set of ways. Part of it is the dangerous sleep deprivation I routinely subject myself to, rarely for any medically compelling reason. Part of it, too, is the Cowboys losing again, pathetically; why I bother following them I don't know, since I'm never better than relieved when they win, and plunge into foul existential exasperation when they fail to. And part of it is half falling in love with Dorothy L. Sayers as I read the first volume of her letters; the psychologists among you are surely scowling knowingly at me as I admit that I fall for historical figures and fictional characters far more readily than I do actual women, though I point out in my own defense that the distinction isn't always clear.
But then again, the US beat Guatemala in World Cup qualifying, my indoor soccer team won its final season game in overtime (sole possession of sixth place, out of eight!), and I had an exquisite assist in my outdoor team's frigid Sunday playoff game (which we lost, but we always lose, so that's ceased to be significant). Romeo and Angela (er, Juliet) was bracing and exuberant (even if it did remind me that I've always hated Shakespeare). And even Sayers turned out okay in the end, albeit in quite the wrong decade to be of personal use to me. The best medicine I administered this week, though, was, as it usually is with me, musical. Unfocused melancholy demands expansive, big-hearted, unflinchingly anthemic, subtlety-free, uplifting and unapologetic pomp, and there is no band in the world that embodies these comforting virtues better for me than Magnum. Or better, anyway, than Magnum did, since the double-live album Last Dance is their farewell, a celebration of twenty years (and ten studio albums) in which, as best my instruments can discern, they never changed a bit.
Why Magnum was never commercially successful in the US I can't quite understand. Rush, Kansas, Styx, Queen, .38 Special, ZZ Top, Def Leppard and Whitesnake all did quite well here, and with perhaps a little Marillion, Jethro Tull and Wagner tossed in, the well-stirred blend of these styles produces a flavor very similar to Magnum's. Composed of big, stomping rock songs with histrionic vocals, panzer-brigade guitars, swirling keyboards and a rhythm section untroubled by their inability to count past four, Magnum's albums are, to me, like snowy nights spent with thick blankets, a roaring fire, a steaming cauldron of mushroom soup, and a sturdy platter of sandwiches in whose descriptions the phrase "thick slabs" recurs frequently. These are not sophisticated pleasures, by any means, but to a large extent I think that's precisely why I find them so enchanting. When the world seems too petty to be endured, Magnum records defy pettiness, sweeping you up into the Valkyries' charge so that you can share the thrill of the ride. What the ride's purpose is, if indeed it even has one, is thoroughly irrelevant. Just wrap the feeling around you and be content. Magnum were the biggest, gruffest bear hug in music.
For this final blast of epic goodwill, appropriately enough, the playlist spans their career. The roaring, arcane "Kingdom of Madness" was the title track of their 1978 debut, an album that shows not even the slightest awareness of punk happening all around them. "Changes", one of their signature mid-tempo ballads, is from 1979's Magnum II. The heartfelt "Back to Earth" is a 1982 between-albums single. "Scared Hour", whose moody, swirling intro gives way to what would be a churning, Judas-Priest-like menace if it were only twice as shrill, is from the third studio album, Chase the Dragon. Album four, The Eleventh Hour, is unrepresented, but On a Storyteller's Night, the band's stylistic breakthrough (which in this context means "the album after which all their records sound absolutely identical"), contributes the raging, empathic "How Far Jerusalem" (here massively extended, to the audience's evident approval); the bouncy "Just Like an Arrow", with its slithering, unmistakably mid-Eighties keyboards; the immortal battlefield waltz "Les Morts Dansant" (my favorite Magnum song, thanks in part to Patty Smyth's cover of it (as "Call to Heaven") on Never Enough); the pounding, clipped "Two Hearts"; and the spellbound piano dirge "The Last Dance". "Vigilante", which sounds to me like a cross between Night Ranger and Warren Zevon, is the title track of record six, which, randomly purchased for $1.99 out of the junk bins at Underground Records during college, was actually my introduction to the band. The towering, stentorian "Wild Swan" and the galloping, tunefully uncluttered "Start Talking Love" are from 1988's gloriously ponderous Wings of Heaven. Goodnight L.A., whose title I never did make sense of, chips in the goofily defiant "Rockin' Chair". The 1992 ninth album, Sleepwalking, gets passed over completely (which, given its precipitous inclination towards self-parody, may not be a bad thing), but from the last one, 1994's Rock Art, come the jittery "Rock Heavy", the uncharacteristically muted and elegant "The Tall Ships", the quick-step jump-boogie "Tell Tale Eyes", and the sweeping "Love's a Stranger". And, just to reassure everybody that Magnum paid as little attention to the second coming of punk as they did to its first incarnation, there's even a five minute drum solo, which might all by itself be the reason I had to mail order this from a UK importer. Between the earlier live albums Marauder and The Spirit and various other compilations, many of these songs have been on a lot of Magnum records (I've got four or five versions of "Changes", and four of "Kingdom of Madness"), but given that this is Magnum, whose songs sound markedly the same even when they're different, it hardly matters. The familiarity of these songs is entwined in the joy of them, and vice versa. This album is a farewell, and what better way for us to say goodbye to each other, the band and however few of us still cherish them, than to, one last time, sing these songs together, and let the light from our eyes and the warmth of our breath drive away the darkness and the cold.
Marillion: Made Again
For another two-disc live album in, at least very broadly speaking, a similar musical dialect, Made Again has a drastically different effect on me. If Magnum is rock with just a touch of the progressive, Marillion has the ingredients in nearly opposite proportions. Where Magnum's Mickey Barker drums like the Incredible Hulk with a cesium clock lodged in his skull, Marillion drummer Ian Mosley and bassist Pete Trewavas shepherd songs with intimations and indirection, sometimes pacing them alongside and sometimes worrying them from behind, wading into the herd only when it's absolutely necessary. Guitarist Steve Rothery can stomp on the overdrive switch in a crisis, but his deft and dumbfoundingly beautiful lines rarely require it. And singer Steve Hogarth, who had an unenviable task taking over for the departed Fish in 1989, has wisely avoided trying to replicate his predecessor's labyrinthine wordplay, letting his achingly emotive voice carry simpler narratives with as much effect.
The Hogarth era in Marillion, it surprises me to note, is actually now as long as the Fish one. The two periods parallel each other almost exactly. Where Fish's Marillion opened with Script for a Jester's Tear and Fugazi, Hogarth's made Seasons End and Holidays in Eden. Both bands then did intently cohesive concept albums, Misplaced Childhood and Brave, followed by the less structured aftermath albums Clutching at Straws and Afraid of Sunlight. And now, just where Fish's Marillion released their double-live album, The Thieving Magpie, Hogarth's puts out Made Again. The analogy maps even down the albums' structure, as disc two of The Thieving Magpie was a live version of the whole of Misplaced Childhood, and Made Again does the same thing with Brave. Marillion live recordings have the same odd characteristic as Rush concert albums, I think, which is that the band is so tight and polished, and maniacal about their production quality, that the differences between the live versions of their songs and the studio versions are not always detectable by the untrained observer. This makes their live albums largely of potential interest to only the extremely devoted, who will have seen the band live and thus treasure the record as a reified memory of the experience, and to the totally uninitiated, for whom they could serve as anthologies. Made Again, due to the relative inaccessibility of Brave and some key omissions on the other disc (like the Seasons End single "Uninvited Guest", and "Dry Land", the pre-Marillion Hogarth song the band remade for Holidays in Eden), and especially given the existence of the 1992 whole-career-spanning conventional hits collection Six of One, Half-Dozen of the Other (more Fish/Hogarth symmetry), is probably not as useful for newcomers as The Thieving Magpie was.
Fortunately, I'm a fanatic. The first disc of Made Again is split evenly between a 1991 London recording and a 1995 Rotterdam show. The earlier half has a mesmerizing version of "Easter" and a fierce "The Space..." from Seasons End, and from Holidays in Eden a haunting "Splintering Heart", a magical and seemingly timeless "No One Can", a disarmingly half-acoustic rendition of the cathartic "Waiting to Happen", and a delirious storm through the buoyant "Cover My Eyes (Pain in Heaven)". The Rotterdam half fills in Seasons End's giddy arena-pop-metal romp "Hooks in You", widely despised by old-guard Marillion fans; the Misplaced Childhood centerpieces "Kayleigh" and "Lavender", Hogarth's versions of which sound not much like Fish's, but capture, I think, the same emotions; and then from Afraid of Sunlight the slightly Lion King-like ballad "Beautiful", the swaying, soaring title track, and the album's dense and tempestuous finale, "King".
The big difference between this and The Thieving Magpie, though, for me, is that while Misplaced Childhood was clearly my favorite of the first four Marillion albums, Brave was, initially, my least favorite of the next four. Although we're dealing with a question of degree here, and "my least favorite Marillion album" is a little like the 9.985 the Romanian judge posts for "Nadia's worst vault", I still could never quite grasp Brave the way I did all the band's other records; the songs seemed too few and too widely separated, and the parts in between them seemed somehow unmotivated and directionless. Three things conspired to change this opinion. The first was seeing the band perform it, as in person it was abundantly clear that there was nothing random or aimless about Brave in the band's own eyes, and this made me reevaluate my position. At the show I also bought the fan-club double-album documentary The Making of Brave, which has one disc of Brave in a sort of pencil-sketch paste-up form, and another with a dress-rehearsal demo of the whole thing. After hearing four versions of the album, I found the scale of the band's ambition finally starting to sink in. By the time this live version arrives, then, I am at length ready for my experience to be celebration, not scrutiny, and predictably enough this results in my liking it a whole lot better this time around. Tenser and more immediate than the original, particularly with the strange intrusion of crowd noises, this is to me the album's most uncannily affecting incarnation. The highlights are still highlights, but I'm no longer waiting impatiently for them to come around. Brave, I realize at last, is not a Tales From Topographic Oceans jam, it's really a single extremely long and extremely complicated song. Its soul is thus not the choruses of "Alone Again in the Lap of Luxury" or "The Great Escape", it's the Escherian musical structure, and the emotional ebb and flow of the story itself, as the band tracks the elusive protagonist through her painful life. It is a rare rock album about quiet and loneliness, and an even rarer work that captures the coexistence of the tragic and the heroic in both feelings.
Nirvana: From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah
The stylistic jump from Marillion to Nirvana crosses quite a chasm, my only feeble segue being that both are live albums. The transition is easier, I must tell you, if you don't actually intend to listen to From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah. I have, but only once, and I am quite certain I won't play it again for years, if indeed ever.
I bought it knowing that this would be the case. Kurt Cobain's suicide left me with extremely mixed feelings about Nirvana. On the one hand, they were an incredibly powerful and significant band that changed the course of music as radically as anybody in my lifetime, and I liked Nevermind and Bleach a lot. On the other hand, I've probably heard "Smell Like Teen Spirit" and "Love Buzz" more than enough times for one lifetime already, and In Utero, to me, was frighteningly lifeless and demoralizing. But on the first hand again, Kurt managed to embody an incredible amount of a generation's repressed pain, which, by his sharing it in public, suddenly became more bearable. Which leads back to the second hand, because having set himself up, intentionally or not, as the icon of abused souls, he then undid all his good work and then some by killing himself. The story's ending was made even worse, for me, by the release of Unplugged in New York, an album I find incapacitatingly depressing. Bowie covers drifting out from under what seems like a thick fog of sedation is not the way Nirvana's story should end. Nirvana was not graceful and subdued, they were loud and scruffy and angry beyond articulation. An MTV Unplugged appearance should have been a footnote in their frenzied career, not its swan song. To me, then, From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah exists for exactly one reason: to finish the story correctly. As in the reissue of A Clockwork Orange, the repaired conclusion is much more brutal than the one it replaces, but it undoes an artistic injustice, and allows the story to end true to itself. Nirvana lived screaming, destroying things, feeding back to tear the cones out of the monitors, and so that is the way their story should end. And now it does, but my approval doesn't mean I ever want to read it again.
XTC: Fossil Fuel (The XTC Singles, 1977-1992)
Thinking about Nirvana depresses me no matter how I go about it, and that's the last thing I needed this week. I could just go back to the first disc in my changer and let Magnum cheer me up again, but for variety, and because there's a ceiling above my to-be-reviewed pile that it's threatening to collide with, I will clear my mind another way.
I kind of dread new XTC albums. I've purchased a few of them, but I have the same experience every time: there are always two or three songs I adore, a couple more I can stand, and then I abhor the rest. The disparity between the singles and the album filler is, for me, horrific. The result of this is that I never listen to any of the XTC albums I have, and I can never bring myself to buy all their old albums, even though each one has some songs I would be pleased to have around the house. Fossil Fuel finally solves this problem. With these two discs in hand I can bury all the other albums in the back yard (or I could if I had a back yard, but that gets back to my interminable condo hunt, and I was supposed to be cheering myself up). "Science Friction" is the coolest Devo song Devo never did. "Statue of Liberty" is like Gang of Four playing a dance party. The strident "This Is Pop" is, I think, one of New Wave's consummate masterpieces. "Are You Receiving Me?" sounds like the Buggles getting serious. The echoey "Life Begins at the Hop" is like an accelerated urban "Come On Eileen". The sinister, fluttery "Making Plans for Nigel" is much better this way than on that Primus EP. "Generals and Majors" is like Madness covering a Skids b-side. "Towers of London" is engaging and unhurried. "Love at First Sight"'s synth-drums and goofy vocal processing are charming. "Respectable Street", my favorite XTC song, is a telling suburban diorama with crashing verse drums that slip into the heady double-time chorus. The creepy "Senses Working Overtime" sneaks up on its own spectacular refrain. "Ball and Chain" sounds like a fugitive from some lost nobility-of-the-downtrodden musical. When I was in high school "No Thugs in Our House"'s "The insect-headed worker wife will hang her waspies on the line" was sedition on par with "No dark sarcasms in the classroom". "Great Fire" is oddly cheery. "Wonderland" sounds like the Muppets covering Spandau Ballet. "Love on a Farmboy's Wages" could be new vocals over an acoustic Big Country demo. "All You Pretty Girls" could be the result of locking the Stray Cats in a pyramid with Jaz Coleman for a month. "Wake Up" almost sounds like a Jon-Anderson-less Yes Talk outtake. "The Meeting Place" reminds me of Robyn Hitchcock and the Three O'Clock. "Dear God" is a dopey classic. "The Mayor of Simpleton" is quick and bouncy, and breathtakingly earnest. "King for a Day" is like a less strained Tears for Fears. "The Disappointed"'s falsetto harmonies waft airily above the song's steady pulse. And "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" could be by Too Much Joy's patient, politically-conscious cousins. Few bands produced as many great songs, and even fewer bands produced as much forgettable dreck in between them. I'm sure there are a few other XTC songs I'd like buried on albums I don't have, but their canon is far too compelling and compact in this form for me to ever bother to find out. I feel a momentary twinge of remorse as I contemplate never hearing "Melt the Guns" again (and I'll keep Rag & Bone Buffet, as it has their two hilarious pseudonymous Christmas songs, plus "Extrovert" and a few other oddities), but other than that I can't muster a single complaint. The XTC I know from their albums is terminally erratic, prone to dazzling flashes of brilliance but constitutionally incapable of clear self-assessment. Compiled, their flashes of brilliance abut, and I can barely see the screen through the afterimage to finish typing this.
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