One Hour of Faith
392 · 1 August 02
Starlet: When Sun Falls on My Feet
The problem with genre-immersion binges, in case that's a strategy you were considering adopting, is that it's easy to get so caught up in the logistics of self-education that you forget what you actually like. During the acclimation process, arguably, this is an advantage, because at least half the challenge of learning a new genre is figuring out what things you like about it that you didn't like in other contexts. Eventually, though, after you've learned enough that random acquisitiveness starts producing diminishing returns, your new genre joins all your old ones, which means, at least if you're me, that you're mostly filling stray catalog holes and keeping up with new releases. The things I've grown to adore in a new genre are easy. I'm hardly going to get confused about whether I like Heavenly or the Lucksmiths. For every Heavenly, though, there are ten bands I bought one album by, listened to it twice, and then moved on. Tuesday evening comes, and I find myself standing in the store holding a new record by the Aluminum Group, or Her Space Holiday, or Verbena, trying to remember any salient element of my experience with them. A single syllable would do: was it "hmm", or "hmm!"? This is why I started writing music reviews in the first place, to try to record some semblance of my reaction while I am still having it. Once, long ago, I even tried to add a field to my artist database in which to note buy-or-not instructions for my future selves, but in practice I found that my future selves always wanted to argue with my past selves about the "not"s, and with the past selves not around to defend their point of view, the future selves usually won, rendering the whole scheme fairly pointless.
So it is that I bought the new albums by Sodastream and Starlet, but walking out of the store could not necessarily have explained the difference in much detail. Sodastream are Australian, and have a cello player, and I know I liked their first EP. Starlet are Swedish, and I think I remember liking them more than I thought, but that's one level of uncertainty too many. When I get home and check my database, I see that I bought Starlet's Stay on My Side and Sodastream's Practical Footwear in the same week in early 2000, and wrote about them a couple weeks apart, which can't help. But the reviews I wrote, of those and Sodastream's Looks Like a Russian, serve exactly the mnemonic function I hoped they would, and as I skim them I recall the corresponding past selves exactly. They loved Sodastream's EP but were bored by the subsequent album, and in fact it turns out I'm bored by the new one as well. They almost let Starlet slip past while they weren't paying close enough attention. And now so have I.
When I check my notes, though, I remember that I liked Stay on My Side a lot, and when I get it out again I can quickly verify that I still do. The catch, I think, is that with most of my favorite discoveries from that Sarah-engendered bedroom-pop trawl, I have a vivid sense of the band's overall aesthetic and a much less detailed impression of individual albums and songs. Which songs are on which Heavenly record? I'd have to get them out and check, same with most of the Lucksmiths, Belle and Sebastian or bis records. In Starlet's case, it's exactly the reverse: I remember each song in startling detail, but in a blind test I'm not sure I could have told you that they were all by the same band. I have not, for some reason, retained a sense of Starlet as a unit, independent of their individual songs. In fact, I'm listening to When Sun Falls on My Feet again, as I write, and they're still basically elusive. Jonas Färm's voice isn't at all generic (it's something like a mutant cross between Ian Curtis and the Reid brothers that somehow ends up warmer and lighter), but he's not the thing I remember. The arrangements take a Johnny Marr-ish tack on rhythm guitars, but sprinkle in some oddly (and un-Swedishly) twangy lead hooks, calmly rattly drums and sporadic becalmed interludes of acoustic guitar or piano. Those aren't what I remember, either. The pacing, when I consciously examine it, is really excellent. Yet the album ends and I've already forgotten about its structure.
But I remember the songs. I've only had this album on medium rotation, and only for a couple months, but I can hum and/or sing along with pretty much the whole thing. Rumbling bass and dryly chattering drums give the plaintive opener "Malmö" an inexorable drive that belies its unhurried tempo, something like "Reel Around the Fountain" with smoke machines. "Don't make me feel bad about myself / For wanting you", the narrator asks, and in the chastened tone of his request I hear all the bigger things he wanted to beg for, but has talked himself out of. "With Sand in My Eyes" inverts the music and lyrics both, adrift verses resolving into pattering choruses, the singer this time itemizing the things he might ask of her out of her hearing, and then being content, when they're together, to just hold her. And in "When Sun Falls on My Feet" itself, finishing a triptych of sorts, measured verses give way so tentatively to the song's soaring chorus that the first time through the band opts to give the chorus melody to a trumpet and save the words for the second iteration. When they do finally arrive, they rise up in a sudden gust of un-Smiths-like self-possession to ask "Have you ever sung along / To the lines of 'Hand in Glove' / As if they were your own?" And maybe this won't seem as profound to you if you weren't a teenager in the mid-Eighties, but for me, most especially in retrospect, the Smiths always seemed to have much more influence than a close inspection of their work itself could wholly explain, and thus this line about singing along with Morrissey captures the sense of melancholy that surrounded the Smiths quite a bit better than any of Morrissey's own lines (and the dueling refrains of "Hand in Glove", don't forget, were "The sun shines out of our behinds" and "I'll probably never see you again") ever did.
There's an intermission, then, a quiet acoustic-guitar song called "Make That Stone Beat Like a Heart Again" that would almost certainly sound like Simon and Garfunkel or the Kings of Convenience if there were any vocal harmony. "I shouldn't look back on those memories", Jonas sings, doing it anyway. The band comes back in for the jangly and seemingly well-balanced "Not Alone", but when I check the printed lyrics I discover that they've written the fade-out lines as "not alone... / not alone... / not alone... / NOT ALONE!", and the idea that the barely detectable shift to legato in the actual delivery of the fourth line is supposed to convey the same frantic denial as the written exclamation leaves me stranded between paralyzing compassion and petrifying terror. Maybe, when these characters try to scream, this is all that comes out. "Sunshine" attempts a partial rejoinder, ahhing harmony buoying the hopeful "Let the sun shine in" lines in the chorus, but the verse gets the last word. "We just sit here waiting, / We don't know what to do", and another breakup is suspended, leaving me wondering whether these are tragedies of freedom denied, tragedies of freedom misidentified, or just oblique stories of the sustaining power of inertia.
The album then sets up for the final push with two quiet songs. "To Sleep This Evil Day Away" is another acoustic lullaby much like the first. "If I've got to choose / A new start to my days, / A brand new loved one", Jonas sings at one point, "I'd choose you". Is this the source of the character's relationship problems, or the kernel of their solution? But by the gently lilting "And How It Breaks" he's forgotten again, and is pleading to be left alone. "I could tell you about the sound of bent faith / And how it breaks", he sighs, but the music is uncooperatively cheerful, all chiming guitars and shimmery keyboard blurs.
Starlet have saved what I think are the two best moments, and certainly the two most decisive extremes, for last. "Christine", the second-to-last, sounds like an airy pop band trying to imagine what "emo" might sound like after reading about it in a magazine and then discovering that the flexi is missing. A taut guitar and a gruff bass circle each other uneasily for a few measures before hesitantly crashing drums join and Jonas starts singing. Fragments of the band's pop instincts resurface in the choruses, whirring synth-organ and enchantingly artless vocal harmonies mostly subduing the guitars, and by the time the horns and organs lead the fade-out into the sunset, the Jimmy Eat World delusions have morphed back into Belle and Sebastian again. And the finale, "Stop and Let It Go", is easily the album's most subdued song and very possibly my choice for the year-so-far's most haunting. Echoey piano notes ping and resound as if pitched into a quarry, paced only by muffled kick-drum thuds. The ghosts of Howard Jones and the Beautiful South and Yaz perch on the quarry's rim, benedictively. "Lovesick", "Biko", "MLK" and the "Chariots of Fire" theme flicker across the surface of the night sky above. The bass drum kicks out two final heartbeats for emphasis (although whether the emphasis is the beats or their subsequent absence, I'm not sure), and then it's over. The narrator's last question is "Why can't I just stop and let it go?", and sure enough, as the last piano notes hang in the air, he is stopping and not letting go. "In the corner of my eye," he confessed a few lines back, "You're still the one you were when I met you." These sad songs of obsession and defeat are an idiom, perhaps, an indirect expression of devotion and resiliency. What we see out of the corners of our eyes, as we make the motions to leave but do not, are probably the things we love best. We are testing ourselves, pushing at the borders that have been drawn around us, some by us and some by others, to find out where they matter. We call loneliness freedom, and prepare for it, and then walk away as slowly as we can, and hope to never get far.
Howard Jones isn't actually dead, mind you, but the metaphysics of fame are such that you can die many times over while you're still alive, and your ghosts will develop busy schedules of their own. Some of New Wave's most notorious gimmick bands have been rehabilitated in recent years and/or staged artistic comebacks, but a-ha, who weren't all that notorious to begin with, don't seem to have renewed their footnote status here in the US, much less transcended it. Rhino's 142-song Eighties box, Like, Omigod!, includes "Take On Me", but in a stretch that also features such things as "Obsession", "Shout", "Don't You (Forget About Me)", "Walking On Sunshine", "Weird Science", "You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)", "Life in a Northern Town" and "Kyrie", none of which have exactly come forward as their generation's "Let It Be". Of a-ha's seven studio albums, I believe only 1985's "Hunting High and Low" and 1988's "Stay on These Roads" are currently in print in the US, and if there are any plans to release Lifelines here they have been carefully concealed somewhere on the web I did not look. But at home in Norway record stores stayed open past midnight to start selling the album on its release date, and other parts of Europe have pitched in to keep the band from having to take day-jobs as architects or bus cleaners. I'm glad that somebody has, because a-ha are one of the vanishingly few New Wave bands who seem to me to have gotten steadily and consistently better, along a single easily identifiable trajectory, over the entire course of their career. Actually, I'm not sure I can think of a second one. Even among the bands from their era for whom I personally have stronger feelings, Big Country's course was much more erratic, Talk Talk's wasn't "linear" in anything like the same sense, and I couldn't make the every-album-better-than-the-last argument about Kate Bush or Cyndi Lauper. Arguably there's a circular component to this reasoning, as my ability to appreciate each a-ha album more than the last is at least partly a function of my not having fallen too deeply in love with any of them. Maybe, for other people, they have made their Hounds of Love or Hat Full of Stars. For me, they're still on their way.
And I might feel differently if I didn't have Hounds of Love and Hat Full of Stars (and Steeltown and Spirit of Eden) already, but as it is I think I have ample space in my musical life for a band that goes about their craft so competently, and with so little excess ado. Each a-ha album has been more graceful, more solidly constructed, more confidently realized, it seems to me. The steps are discreet, but discrete, and by this many later, "Take On Me" sounds more than a little like juvenilia in comparison. a-ha were one of their era's boy bands, and if you think there's no qualitative difference between the shiny pop we had in the Eighties and the shiny pop kids have now, check back in 2019 and see how many of today's idols turn out to have had grown-up music in them. Mathematically, it's hard to see why a-ha aren't idols here, even now. These songs have the reserved elegance of Sarah McLachlan, the atmospheric radiance of Enya's soundtracks and Moby's car commercials, the remix-fodder potential of the Pet Shop Boys, boyishly clear falsettos, wholly modern arrangements and production technology and evocatively vague lyrics, and the ugliest of the three members is no more alarming than anybody in Oasis. But they're far too guileless, I fear, the absence of petulance and crassness far too unnerving. "You Wanted More", "Time & Again" and "A Little Bit" are all airy and comforting. "Oranges on Appletrees" feints towards mock-orchestral bombast and/or Pet Shop Boys post-disco twitch, but the singing is too pretty, and too obviously the point. "Afternoon High" is AM nostalgia as vivid as Roxette's "June Afternoon". "There's a Reason" may be closer to Crowded House than either of the Finns have recently come. "Did Anyone Approach You?" has burbly synth noises, spoken verses and a squawky guitar riff, but where Moby's "South Side" gives in to its urges for showmanship and sex, this one sticks to geometry and good posture. "Turn the Lights Down" is the closest to a drippy NSync ballad, but the duet part by Bel Canto's Anneli Drecker betrays too much training, and the massed choruses are much too unselfconscious. "Lifelines", "Less Than Pure" and "Cannot Hide", with their slight lyrical intimations of darkness and marginally bouncier arrangements, might be the best cross-Atlantic candidates here, but any of the three would need some remixing to chisel out more dramatic dynamic variation, and even "Forever Not Yours", the obvious lead single, refuses to exaggerate the downbeats so that they can be pogoed to, and stubbornly sets the MIDI clock about ten beats-per-minute below the club-groove minimum and about ten above the chill-out maximum. And "White Canvas", after all, probably could be another generation's "Let It Be", this one more explicitly making peace with pasts instead of taking a stand for the future, but those may be two aspects of the same action.
Here again, the last two songs are my personal favorites. The meditative "Dragonfly", with another distinctly Finn-ish melody, plays with waltz time, more-organic instrumentation and intriguingly off-center harmony vocals. The slow, loping "Solace", reminiscent in ways of slower Roxette songs ("Wish I Could Fly" or "Milk and Toast and Honey", say), brings the album to its logical emotional peak with a perfect falsetto chorus. "Cold stars of the future, / They burned bright in the past, / But these moments of solace, / They won't last, / They cannot last". And here too, a-ha are both right and wrong and I believe they understand exactly how. Solace does last. That's what solace is, really, not the moment of comfort itself but the sustenance the memory of it provides afterwards. The moments themselves don't last, because they don't have to. Records end. Seven albums in seventeen years; statistically speaking, these records barely spend a breath doing anything but ending. There's little to ponder about this album, and it's quite possible that I won't think about a-ha again until their next one. But this hour of asylum is important all the same, and may be as integral a part of my mechanisms for coping and understanding as many records that provoke much more intense intellectual or emotional engagement. I forget to provide for interludes of peace. Peace is so much like sleep, and I resent sleep. But resenting sleep is futile, and thus sustainable; resenting peace will drive you crazy. You must have a rest state, a reference level. No, you probably can't dance to this record, but everything clamors for you to dance. We have built a perpetual-motion culture that might not be able to start again if it ever stopped, but the terms of the culture's survival are not the terms of your own. You can stop. Maybe for only an hour at a time, and maybe you have to pay import prices to do so, but at least it's still possible. This album won't play here because there's nothing about it to pick at, and we've been taught to distrust anything we can't dismiss. It was a bad lesson, but it was also a hard lesson, and yet we learned it, so I'm pretty sure we can learn a much easier one about how to hold still. I don't meditate, and I don't pray, but I do listen to records. I'm hoping it's enough.