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Longpigs: The Sun Is Often Out
If I really planned my life around obscure music-related exigencies as meticulously as it sometimes seems like I try to, then I would not have arranged my trip to London such that the marathon CD-buying expedition around which it, in a sense, turned, fell on the day that the new Spice Girls album came out. This may sound like an inconsequential detail to you, like I've taken symbolism to an impractical extreme, but a London CD binge, for me, begins with a painstaking scrutiny of the stocks of Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus, the Virgin Megastore near Tottenham Cross Road, and HMV Oxford Circus, and doing this on the Monday before last meant that I was forced to listen to Spice World, on repeat, blasting over in-store sound systems, for about four and a half hours. Individual Spice Girls experiences -- an isolated song, a public appearance with Nelson Mandela, Baby Spice tumbling off her own shoes -- are fizzily earnest and essentially innocuous, uncomfortable in the way that mistakenly laughing a little bit of Pepsi into your nasal passages is, but equally unlikely to do you much lasting harm. Listening to a whole album of their songs, though, especially six or seven times in a row, is, at least for me, more like being suspended upside-down with a two-liter bottle of Pepsi jammed into each nostril. All pretense of entertainment falls away by about the eightieth bubbly yelp of "Spice up your life!" (which, said by the Spice Girls, has about as much radical credibility as a "Need a little excitement?" Slim Jim ad), and I end up feeling like the butt of a particularly blunt Zen parable intended to demonstrate the ancient proverb about hammer-ownership producing impressions of nail-ness (or, in this case, "When all you have is an image, everything looks like a soda commercial"). It takes an immense effort of will to concentrate, in this atmosphere, on the deeply serious task of tracking down all the albums that Per Gessle and Marie Fredriksson made before they formed Roxette.
This was my third trip to London, so most of the obvious mind-the-gap-ish cultural observations struck me on one of the previous ones, but there were a couple things that are either new developments, or simply eluded me before. One of the new ones is that as best I can tell, everybody in London has a cellular telephone. What they need, so urgently, to tell each other, right this second, I was unable to discern or deduce. If cell phones really do cause cancer, London will be a ghost town by the end of the Aughts. The friends I was staying with leant me one of theirs, ostensibly so they could call me and remind me to leave a few CDs in central London for other people to purchase, but I think really they were just sparing me the social stigma of being the only one not peering into a pocket every 45 seconds trying to determine whether this particular chipper warbling is coming from their phone or the next person's. I would normally be inclined to regard this as conformist paranoia, but in fact there was a special urgency to attempting to blend in in London last week, for an American, particularly an American from Cambridge, Massachusetts, the very city where Britain's impromptu national mascot, Louise Woodward, was undergoing the inimitable indignities of the American judicial system. There was an unsettlingly genuine risk, judging from the ambient hostility swirling through the city, of my being lynched as a representative of the enemy. I would, no doubt, have exacerbated the situation, if cornered, by explaining, patiently, that the American judicial system is merely idiotic, not malicious or xenophobic, and then pointing out that if it weren't for Britain's own long history of miscarriages of justice, there might not now be a United States to have an idiotic judicial system in the first place. The crowd, unappeased by this cogent analysis, closes ranks around me, snarling, mouths opening, incisors glistening, indignant hunger beading their eyes, as they circle in for the kill. Two hundred years of national pride and international frustration collects like a migraine throb in the backs of their skulls, pressing on quadrants of the cortex that understand only the most primal grammar of tearing flesh and blood revenge. A nation's fury swells toward an outlet, presses toward release. An eye for an eye, an acquisitive 30-year-old software designer for a penitent 19-year-old au pair. This is a nation, I am forcibly reminded, that once thought "Might makes right" was both catchy and sensible. I have made an error in judgment as casual, and catastrophic, as an ignorant hippie shuffling through Singapore customs with a ziploc baggie of dope in his waistband; I will never get to listen to the £2 copy of Up the Shirkers, by the Tansads, that I still clutch excitedly in my hands. No charming "Way Out" signs will extricate me, this time. But then, just as the first crooked fangs are about to close on my neck, somebody's cell phone rings, and in the confusion of everybody in the mob trying to see if it's theirs, I am able to slip away.
The thing I didn't remember, from my previous visits, and I don't know whether things have changed, or last time I just didn't notice it, is how crammed full of people London is. I've never been to Tokyo, or Hong Kong, or Mexico City, or any of the other great global capitals of human adjacency, but I've been in Manhattan on the day after Thanksgiving, which rates, and it was nothing like this. Regent and Oxford streets, on a Saturday afternoon, and Leicester Square on a Saturday night, were crowded enough to make me wonder whether there ought to be fire-code limitations on outside spaces, as well as buildings. There is a corresponding point, on the far slope of the bell-curve about where you find "critical mass" on the near slope, where you reach terminal mass, and the density of people becomes so high that it is no longer possible for them to experience whatever it is that inspired them to collect here to begin with. You cannot explore when you cannot move, cannot sightsee when self-preservation requires so much of your attention, cannot shop if you can't carry anything, and so cruder spectacles flourish: lines of instant-portrait artists apply indifferent soft-focus sheen to quick sketches of the children of indulgent Swiss tourists; buskers denude folk and soft-rock standards of all vestiges of their native rhythm, in the way of buskers the world over (though here it is Dire Straits' "Romeo and Juliet" that is being mangled, where in Harvard Square it would be "The Sounds of Silence"); a surly barker with a strange twitch in one eye has mounted a differential in the steering mechanism of a rickety child's bicycle so that turning the handlebars one way turns the front wheel the other, and bets ten pounds to your one that you can't ride it fifteen feet in a straight line in two tries; strategically distributed corps of gruff, nervous men sell cardboard Minnie Mouse cutouts to defenseless parents too distracted to note that every vendor of these miraculous dancing rodents has casually placed a backpack or satchel on one side of the mice, their ubiquitous boom-boxes on the other, the vibrating mono-filament between them as hard to see as its presence is physically and socially inevitable. The conceit of driving on the left is applied ambiguously to pedestrian traffic, with the result that intersecting crowds pass through each other the way a seven-year-old shuffles a deck of cards, ramming one half against the other in the smug confidence that they will eventually relent and mesh.
There are three Londons, at least, that shimmer, overlaid upon one another, as I wander through its streets. One is the real one, noisy and cramped, inimitable in many ways (public toilets are prevalent and clean, the streets are labeled, even signs address you with a charmingly expository pedantry -- "Do not feed the pigeons", it would say in America, but the British add, crossly, "They are a public health hazard and a nuisance"), but inexorably being overrun by global commercialism in as many others (I only passed two Dunkin Donuts on my rounds, but Burger King, McDonald's, KFC and the Gap are omnipresent, and it can't be a matter of more than a few years until even the surfaces of the streets and the face of Big Ben, practically the only unsponsored spaces left, have advertisements plastered across them). The second is the one I know from books, a prim amalgam, primarily, of Dickens, Sayers, Doyle and Lawrence Norfolk's Lemprière's Dictionary, which I happen to be reading during this visit. It is this one that makes sense of how a street here is something you are in, not on, how pubs take the place of small parks, and large parks the place of suburbs. It is the literary abstractions of London that help me grasp the scale of time the city represents, and the unique power of massively concentrated wealth, neither of which have equivalents in American urban development. The third London, coexisting oddly with the other two at times, is the one I bring with me, the arbitrary collage of English detail and random masking that I've assembled from punk songs, Monty Python sketches, the idioms of ESPN's British soccer commentators and too many rewatchings of Four Weddings and a Funeral. This is the London of wild conceptual elisions: all of Soho radiates from the ground zero of the Jam's "'A' Bomb in Wardour Street"; the cheerful Cadbury's vending machines in the Tube disgorge the plum the narrator of Weller's "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight" buys right before he's beaten up; every NatWest, Barklays, Midlands or Lloyds branch office is an outpost of the overlords; Baker Street winds, and has a dream about buying some land; the narrow windows of Holloway Prison look out forlornly into the warren of mews, like towers Rapunzel might throw her hair out of; the baggage-retrieval system at Heathrow is worrisome; every time someone says "block of flats" I think "abattoir", and remember the design so intrinsically flawed that even the model of it spontaneously caught fire and fell over; every quick thing has "pace"; and my favorite bit of movie memorabilia at the Museum of the Moving Image is the front of the building itself, and the promenade along the Thames outside of it. This last London is as remarkable for the things it doesn't have as the ones it does. My personal London doesn't have the Spice Girls. It doesn't have Safeways, or coolers full of Nantucket Nectars and Snapple. Drum 'n' Bass hasn't become the new universal Muzak, the shoe stores aren't filled with surreal six-inch-soled platform sneakers, cross-trainers if the cross is between taking things down from high shelves and being sunk into the East River by Brooklyn mobsters. It has no homeless people, the restaurant service is attentive, fish and chips won't kill you, and burritos do not have cabbage in them. It is idealized, albeit bizarrely, as places that you only visit can be, while places you live cannot.
Music, naturally, is one of the biggest differences between the real London and the London in my mind. I see the charts, so I know, intellectually, that much of the British music scene consists of things like M People, the best of Simply Red, and the Lighthouse Family, but the occasional exception like Oasis aside, most of this stuff never reaches me, so it's easy to pretend it doesn't exist, easy to imagine that the exact set of British things I like is the set the British, themselves, like. In my mind Marillion and Big Country are British superstars, the Icicle Works and the Comsat Angels are revered nobility, anybody on the street could sing you half a dozen Scarlet songs, and the tabloids dote on phantom Richey sightings and Gary Numan's hair transplants. The Manic Street Preachers are the most important band in the land, and the new faces of the moment are the Longpigs and the Stereophonics.
In the case of the Longpigs, this is a two-fold misconception, because not only are they not as famous in British reality as they are in my mind, but their album, The Sun Is Often Out, was released in the UK in 1996, and some of it dates back to 1995. It only just started to get airplay here, though, and I only discovered it, myself, just before my trip, so it became a large part of the soundtrack of my anticipation. The key to the association, I think, is that the Longpigs finally affect me the way at least half a dozen other British bands seemed like they would, when I read about them, but didn't when I actually heard them. I wanted to love Suede, Pulp and Cast, but couldn't manage to. I bought the Geneva and Placebo records, thinking that the marriage of guitar power, pop songwriting instincts, indie candor and choirboy vocal tradition I'd read about would enthrall me, but it didn't. Most recently, the review-line "Rock and roll is dangerous again", about the Verve, made me half forget that the last Verve album, A Northern Soul, did virtually nothing for me, so when I chanced across the tail end of an intriguing song on the radio, and the DJ said it was the Verve's, I bought Urban Hymns, sure that this time I'd share the enthusiasm. But the first song bored me. The second song bored me. The third, too, and the fourth. By the midpoint I'd given up on the album, and was just waiting for the single I'd heard to come along, to see if I even still liked that. It never did. The reason for its absence, I eventually discovered, is that it wasn't a Verve song, after all, it was the Longpigs' "On and On".
A two-guitar quartet, with occasional piano and organ, and Crispin Hunt's tense voice swooping suddenly into falsetto arcs, Longpigs sound more than a little like Radiohead, circa Pablo Honey and The Bends, Radiohead's increasing fondness for haunting atmosphere replaced by some Manic Street Preachers immediacy and a little Suede-like glam strut. They have their Beatlesque moments, but to me these show through as hints and traces, rather than Oasis' broad, obvious pilferings, and they borrow from later, more complex parts of the Beatles style-repertoire, too, not just the early pop simplicity. Hunt's intensity reminds me in places of the Payola$, his sense of drama at times of Robyn Hitchcock, and his timbral flirtation with whining in some moments of Perry Farrell's in Jane's Addiction. Where the Verve's songs, though, to me, get lost in their own languid, jamming drift, these never stray far from jagged guitar riffs and a passionate vocal delivery that Hunt has to constantly reign in from howling. Threads of anthemic transport weave Longpigs into a tapestry that, only a few feet ago, saw a pre-irony U2 marching in the snow, Cactus World News pounding on their whammy bars, and Echo and the Bunnymen careening through their own guitar squall. Perhaps, too, there's a bit of Pixies buzz in there, a little Pere Ubu sonic perversity, and some quiet Crowded House grace. There are many recipes for music that makes me feel like the rest of the world is superfluous (I've already admitted to being an obsessive Roxette fan, after all), but this particular combination of vehment stridency and rock aplomb is one of the simplest and most nourishing, and only the fact that I just returned from England with enough new CDs to cap Hadrian's Wall galvanizes me into listening to anything else.
The album opens, in full Radiohead mode, with "Lost Myself, distracted and introspective guitars circling around a slow, pensive drum march, Hunt's voice wavering a little, though no pressure is evident, as if he's unsteady even at best. Around the minute mark a warm, spare piano part joins in, its ring lending the song some extra confidence, which it quickly employs to launch into a ragged, blaring chorus, Hunt spitting his words out as if trying to expel them as far from his body as possible. The most obvious Radiohead analog is "Creep", though "Lost Myself", probably fortunately, doesn't have quite "Creep"'s stop/start novelty value. "She Said", second, takes up where "Lost Myself" leaves off, using its bass growl, roaring chorus guitar and clear piano clang for the verses this time, saving wailing guitar lines, long piano scales and crazed, octave-jumping vocal histrionics for the chorus. "'There's no clothes I can buy / Make me feel like myself'", Hunt's second-hand narrator complains, and I empathize; a purchased life can be bent into an approximation of yourself, if you treat it as a long series of tangents that, taken together, collectively outline a shape that no one of them can trace, but this is a crude and laborious way to describe anything. The graceful "Far", something like a slow Alarm remake of "Day Tripper", sparkles with psychedelic sitar-like guitar flourishes and some arresting descending falsetto vocal flutters.
"On and On" is where the album starts to decelerate toward its quiet middle stretch. In my defense, the Verve does sound a little like this, "Bitter Sweet Symphony" and "The Drugs Don't Work" both having similar measured gaits. Now that I've heard the song several times, though, it reminds me much more of Neil Finn than Richard Ashcroft. Neil would never let his voice crack like Crispin does as he leans into the chorus, and the Finns would echo more of the melody in the accompaniment, where Longpigs substitute a thick, humming counterpoint, but the verses and the chiming acoustic guitar, in particular, have the unhurried pop composure that Neil's quieter moments, for me, glow with. Pop gets temporarily shelved for the strident "Happy Again", all wiry RHCP-esque guitar drone, lumbering drum thump and belligerent crashing cymbals, but the song's cathartic ending crescendo reverses into a fade-out before losing control, and segues nicely into the gentle, sweeping "All Hype", which, except for the cynical lyrics and a bit of guitar surge in the choruses, could almost be a Christmas song. Hunt sounds ominously like Jim Morrison in the opening moments of the quicker "Sally Dances", but again frequent feints toward punk explosion are not carried through, and the song, while neither slow nor quiet in practice, still seems both to me in spirit. What the album has been conserving energy for finally becomes apparent in "Jesus Christ": calm verses, carried on rolling bass, sharp, echoing snares and ringing, but muted, guitars, give way to a riveting, soaring chorus, guitars ping-ponging polyrhythmically like The Edge's circa War, and Hunt singing like his life is defined by it, not least by the fact that he can't quite hold the high notes, which results in an involuntary-sounding detuning on the "eee" part of "Jesus Christ" that may be the most electrifying vocal noise I've heard all year. Possibly, with some voice training, he could learn to hit the note steadily, but the song's expressivity relies on the fact that he can't, its redemptive power and romantic credibility, for me, on its blurring of the distinction between flying and falling, as most truly amazing feelings are hybrids of the two.
After that the energy pretty much has to trail off a bit, so Longpigs wisely supply another slower song, and allow it to. "A Dozen Wicked Words" is much quieter and slower than Stereophonics' "A Thousand Trees", but they seem of a pair to me, entries for a catalog of evil. "Elvis" slams into high gear again, sprinting through a sputtering rant whose verses sounds to me like the Pretenders' "Bad Boys Get Spanked", but whose choruses, which are at a completely different and unrelated tempo, wobble around their melody line like they've elected a drunken trombonist to lead them, and are determined to follow his every erratic nuance. The album then returns to the same Radiohead-ish serenity from which it began, for "Over Our Bodies", which except for Hunt's patently earthly delivery, where Thom Yorke's is angelic, could probably fit in somewhere on OK Computer. In the silence The Sun Is Often Out leaves me with, though (ten minutes of which they supply on the disc, in case you don't have any silence of your own), I don't have the slightest urge to kill myself, which is a marked improvement over my personal reaction to OK Computer. Admittedly, a large part of this equanimity may be due to the fact that, especially without a lyric sheet to focus my attention, this album isn't nearly as coherent as Radiohead's, but we all need our tactics for surviving, and judicious incoherence is one of the most time-honored.
Stereophonics: Word Gets Around
My London trip was book-ended at the outset by record shopping, and at the close by a soccer game. (I dissemble: I was still buying CDs in the airport waiting for my flight to begin boarding.) I picked my travel dates, actually, because of two soccer games here in the US (the MLS Cup, the weekend before I left, and the US-El Salvador World Cup qualifier the weekend after my return), but having picked them I idly looked up an FA fixture schedule to see if any of the smaller London teams were playing interesting home games during my visit. As it turns out, the smaller London teams weren't up to much. Arsenal, however, were hosting Manchester United. This, for those of you who don't follow English soccer, is a match of roughly comparable intensity to a Bird/Magic-era Celtics-Lakers playoff game. Tickets, naturally, were impossible to come by, by which I mean that they were easy to get, but astronomically expensive. But how often am I in London on the day when the biggest club match in Europe is being played there? Manchester United entered the game in first place, with Arsenal in fourth, but an Arsenal victory would move them into second place, a single point behind Manchester United. The English season is barely a third over, so obviously much can change, but every pair of teams in the Premiership meets just twice per season, once at each team's home, and there are no standings subdivisions or post-season playoffs to make up for regular season shortcomings, so any game in which the outcome is in question is critical.
I've seen plenty of English matches on television, so I knew that the speed and quality of play were dramatically higher than in the US' fledgling professional league, but there are several things about the experience of a match like this that television cannot capture. First, crowd response is phenomenal. MLS, the US league, is still building its audience, so the New England Revolution, who led the league in attendance this year, play to average crowds of about 21,000 (in Foxboro Stadium, which seats about 55,000 when all sections are in use), and while this is more people than some smaller Premiership teams draw, a sizable portion of each game's audience are attending their first game, and constantly turning to whoever dragged them along with a quizzical frown on their faces when they should be yelling. My sister and I, who have season tickets in the third row, right behind the home bench, where we can scream indignant instructions at the coach and know that he has to actively ignore us, are definitely in the top percentile or two of US fan knowledge. Highbury, on the other hand, Arsenal's ground, holds 38,000, and it didn't seem like there was a soul there who couldn't have listed both teams' rosters, insulted each opposing player in some manner uniquely sensitive to his own personal foibles, and explained the offside rule and Australia's World Cup qualification route in their sleep. The subtlest display of skill was greeted with pinpoint accuracy by bursts of supportive crowd noise. Complicated songs of encouragement began in massive unison, without evident preamble, as if the entire crowd had agreed, beforehand, to begin the anthem of Tottenham's incompetence when the second-half countdown clock reached exactly 23:45. And Arsenal goals, of course, were celebrated by instant crazed ululation.
The most striking thing about the experience for me, though, was the physical environs of Highbury. Stadiums, in the US, are massive fortresses, surrounded by sprawling parking-lot moats that render even the few arenas located in inner cities sharply isolated from their surrounding communities. I've now been to Foxboro Stadium about thirty times in the last two years, but the sum total of my knowledge of Foxboro, the town, is the names of the car dealerships along the stretch of Route 1 from the 95 exit to the stadium entrance. Highbury, on the other hand, is embedded squarely in residential North London. There are houses across the street from the entrance, houses lining the street from the tube station to the main gates, houses surrounding the entire structure, as if it was inserted into a solidly packed neighborhood by a parsimonious god snipping out a hole for it exactly the dimensions of its exterior. The back entrance for fans of the visiting team is literally between two row houses on a street that betrays no other sign of its stadium function. There is no parking to speak of, so essentially all of the 38,000 attendees arrive on foot or on the Tube, and at the end of the game they pour out into the narrow streets and fill them for miles. The stadium and the community are vividly indivisible. My first feeling was that the fans were overrunning the neighborhood, but on reflection I realize that this is backwards, and it is the neighborhood that swallows the stadium, so that you cannot support the pride of North London without actually entering and experiencing North London. English soccer's top stars are public figures on par with the Michael Jordans and Patrick Ewings here, but their presence is resolutely tangible, and so their celebrity lacks the rarefication it would have in the US. Even the soccer league structure, with eighty teams competing in (and moving up and down among) four national levels, and a central tournament (the FA Cup) in which, at least in theory, the English soccer equivalent of your company's softball team could end up playing against Liverpool at Wembley for one of the country's two most important trophies, emphasize the continuity between the most casual park player and the highest-paid stars, in a way that the major US leagues, particularly the NFL and the NBA, in which the chasm between participants and spectators is almost bottomless, precisely do not.
And so, although football isn't really the point of "A Thousand Trees", the opening track of the debut album by the Welsh trio Stereophonics, it is the context in which the song's parable of human willingness to believe ill of each other is set, and the mechanics of the subject's predicament are meaningful. The closest American translation of the implicated star's career trajectory would be a local high-school quarterback who goes on to pro acclaim, returns to coach the high school team, and ends up embroiled in some tawdry underage sex scandal, but this rendition sows the seeds of pathos long before the final act, as the idea that a pro quarterback would be reduced to coaching at a high school is already a violation of the burn-out-not-fade-away code of true American-style celebrity, and makes this seem too much like Springsteen's "Glory Days". In the English version, though, no fall from grace is required to bring the star back to his neighborhood, which is precisely why the unspecified sordidness he is accused of is cleanly tragic. The connection that makes the star important to the people around him is the very thing turned against him.
The song's aesthetic irony, to me, is that while its lyrics explore the fragility of fame and the capacity of people to flay each other almost without thinking, which seems wholly contrary to the jubilant aura around me as we stream through the streets after David Platt's closing-minutes header over Peter Schmeichel into the top corner gives Arsenal a triumphant 3-2 victory, the song, musically, roars with a timeless, open-hearted rock grace that embodies my experience of the moment perfectly. Kelly Jones' raw, aching, haunting voice carries the scars of his ancestors' trials, but bears, too, the enchantments of eternal rock optimism. I hear the void Richey James' disappearance left when Kelly's voice cracks, and the Alarm's steadfast defiance in his howls, but also a bit of Tom Jones' bluster (and I assume that the reference to "matchstick men" is a Status Quo allusion, though Status Quo weren't Welsh, were they?). If the demeanor of a crowd derives from the songs they hear in their heads, no crowd that pours out of a home victory singing Stereophonics songs would ever riot. These songs are anthems of cohesion, but anthems that turn your attention to the unity of your fellowship, not the alienness of those outside of it. Riots happen when crowds are playing "Nazi Punks Fuck Off" in their heads, or "Caught in a Mosh", or possibly, after a week of saturation, "Spice Up Your Life".
Four singles preceded this album, and the band elects to acknowledge their familiarity by getting them all out of the way immediately. "A Thousand Trees" is followed by the homelessness diptych "Looks Like Chaplin" and "More Life in a Tramp's Vest", from a double-a-side single. "Looks Like Chaplin" is bleak and menacing, reverse-reverb voice treatments turning every statement into a threat; "More Life in a Tramp's Vest" is bouncier, scorn at the dead lives of the tired people shuffling through supermarket aisles giving way to a weirdly gleeful vision of the idyllic life of a drunken vagrant. "Local Boy in the Photograph", the last of the singles, is the most straightforward rock song of the four, surging rhythm guitar and churning drums underpinning Jones' unrestrained wail, which does for voice much of what an overdriven tube amp does for guitar. There's no lyrical detail specific enough to prove that the song's presumed suicide is actually vanished Manic Street Preachers lyricist Richey James, but in my world, where connections are strong, no record that owes as much to James and his band as this one would fail to include a requiem for him, so I'll believe that's how this song was meant. The fifth single, the first one to come out after the album, is "Traffic", and that comes fifth on the album, too. This one is slower, sadder, like being stranded on a traffic island while the world tears itself down and tries to rebuild itself in spiraling alternation around you. Organ chords whir quietly, like the sustain of an endless sigh, and an acoustic guitar carefully picks out chords like the light of day is too bright, the details of the tumult too sharp. Unless mindless clichés are central to the popular appeal of Oasis songs after all, I don't see why this song couldn't go where any of Oasis' went.
The break where the singles end and the album tracks begin is demarcated boldly by the stiff drum-machine snap of "Not Up to You". Simmering keyboards and a processed guitar buzz swell behind a muted vocal, the song finally building, when I've almost resigned myself to the idea that it isn't going to, into a thick, driving gale, only to subside back to the drum loop again by the end. This proves to be just a spacer, though, not a direction-change signpost, as "Check My Eyelids for Holes" returns quickly to charging, slashing guitars. The bass and drums just try to keep pace, angular guitar stabs criss-cross and Jones' breathless vocal skips over the beats of his measures, hitting some and evading others according to an internal system he doesn't bother to explain. Manic Street Preachers had at least half a dozen b-sides like this, songs that refuse, for me, to circumscribe themselves. "Same Size Feet", on the other hand, slips back into a rock groove smoothed by decades of passage. Manic Street Preachers have come through here, but so too have the Michael Stanley Band, and the Who, and the Hoodoo Gurus -- Radiohead, but also Springsteen, and Billy Joel, and Soul Asylum -- and like all these feet in Avenell Street, they have somehow lined the trail, not worn it away.
"Last of the Big Time Drinkers" is like a reprise of "More Life in a Tramp's Vest", but the band veers, unexpectedly, as the last triad opens, with the jangly "Goldfish Bowl", which sounds as much like the Gin Blossoms to me as anything else, unhurried guitar twang and mournful harmonica's spell only broken by Jones' unavoidable Welsh accent. American referents linger for the disarming "Too Many Sandwiches", which seems to me like, of all things, a guitar updating of Billy Joel's "Captain Jack", "You bought a sequin dress for your chicken breast" perhaps the narrator's sister, in Joel's song, preparing for her date. The mood, at this point, I think, could still go in any direction, melancholy swept away in a last burst of adrenaline, or resignation settling gloomily in to stay. Radiohead and the Manic Street Preachers' spirits hovers over even this decision, as the album's finale, "Billy Davey's Daughter", is a hushed, elegant suicide elegy. The story, except for a gender switch, is exactly the same as "Local Boy in the Photograph"'s, but "Local Boy in the Photograph" is still self-obsessed, and its characters cling to the shock of the event as if it is a source of power they can somehow tap. "Billy Davey's Daughter" looks up from itself, sees the effect the death had on other people, and ends up trading morbid fascination for empathy. Jones slips into a Thom Yorke-like falsetto to evoke the girl's father's mourning dreams, and the phrase the song ends on, the album's title, is not only, I think, a statement of community cognizance, but also a sign that the narrator has finally grasped the significance of a life.
I know, of course, that America is not the country of death, and London is not the city of life. I know that the intricate syllogisms on the subject I am constructing out of pieces of Everything Must Go, OK Computer, The Sun Is Often Out and Word Gets Around, out of Louise Woodward's trial and the vast empty audience chambers of Hampton Court, out of the bomb-shelter catacombs of the London Underground and the immolation of the Rochelais, out of too little sleep and too many thoughts -- I know that these things are cities in my own head, not cities sprawled across any mortal plain. I know that London is, in the end, just another way station, and I travel, just like I turn the volume up on these agonizingly beautiful songs, to jar myself loose from invisible obstacles. My London could be your Boston, or your Barbados, or your brother's hospital bed, or an anonymous hotel room two nights before the end of the tour after which your label is going to drop you, or the book you stop strangers in the street to tell them you've been asked to write, or a thousand other mirages or asteroids. "Seeker of truth / follow no path", cummings admonishes. Heathrow is not the end of a path, for me, so much as it is just a space in which I can turn around. Truth is here, but here expands at every edge you press on. If you can sit still enough, your here may gather in around you, until you can fill it without a single motion. I don't have the patience. I thrash, and fight against my own self-sufficiency, until it takes a British Airways jet, every two or three years, just to fly me to the rest of myself.
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