434 · 22 May 03
The Alarm: In the Poppy Fields
You may have forgotten the Alarm, most of you. They weren't that huge, ever, and they haven't even been medium-size for a really long time. But inside the stubborn alternate reality of Mike Peters' sprawling web site and its associated Alarm universe, it feels rather more likely that the Alarm is real, and the people who forgot them are the fiction.
Gradually, over the past few years, Peters has morphed into a sort of hyper-cuddly reinvention of the fundamental archetype of the rock star as a new and inexplicable creature capable of taking himself monumentally and encyclopedically seriously without ever being detectably dour or egotistical about it. Far from any delusion that he's some kind of King of Pop, Peters more often appears to labor under the delusion that he has somehow inherited the post of Town Singer in a village that has, and has only ever had, just one. He cheerfully sets out to entertain the townspeople with the mixture of senses of responsibility and entitlement that arise from the apparent assumption that people come to him for entertainment in the same way that they visit the town's only blacksmith for horseshoes.
In a village, you'd bring him eggs or bread or Aeolian harps or whatever you do, and he'd make up a song for you. In our virtual village, this wholesome barter process is simplified to you buying stuff from his web site. The biggest thing on sale there, for the past several months, has been the imposing five-CD pre-release preview series for what will, at some point, be a new Alarm studio record titled In the Poppy Fields. The version of this album sold to "the public", later this year, is intended to be a normal-length ten-to-twelve-song album of no structural distinction. In order to make this one normal record, though, Peters and his new incarnation of the Alarm (him, guitarist James Stevenson, bassist Craig Adams and drummer Steve Grantley) holed up in the studio with producer Martin Wilding and recorded 54 possible tracks for it, which the assiduous buyer of stuff from the web site can hear in their entirety.
Stephin Merritt put out 69 songs at once, of course, so what's so overwhelming about 54? Well, for one, the Alarm's 54 last longer than the Magnetic Fields' 69. And, for another, Merritt and Peters have rather different conceptions of style-hopping. Merritt's involves careening from one genre to another, while Peters' involves jumping straight up and down on a single genre until it is reduced to a completely unidentifiable powdery residue.
The self-injuring irony of five discs worth of Alarm material at once is that the limited scope of the Alarm's style is far more plainly evident in this mass than perhaps even the most ardent fan needs to be so meticulously reminded. When Alarm songs work, they are usually rousing anthems. When they don't, they tend to end up wandering, lost, in search of an animating spark. Some of these 54 songs work, some don't, as should be expected. Except that some of the songs that work do so in such similar ways that they threaten to cancel each other out, and some of the ones that don't work undermine some of the ones that do by sheer numbers. I fear that Peters dreams of his fans hearing these 54 songs and demanding that he scrap his fatuously self-effacing plan to edit them down to ten or twelve at all. Release all 54! Let the world bask in the glow of exactly this much passionate grandeur!
The truth, or at least my subjective truth as a listener who would have been perfectly delighted to believe that this is a new landmark in rock history, is that this set represents a lot of wasted studio hours that somebody should have had the sense to spend some other way, or at least a lot of minutes of recording that nobody outside the studio needed to hear. Peters is not a polymath. Surely, after so many years of bashing out acoustic versions of everything he's ever written, Mike Peters should know about himself that as a songwriter he is an artisan, not an artist. He has learned a trade, and he plies it effectively. And that is enough, but that is all. When he pushes himself to do more, we get the same few moods over and over again. When he pushes himself to do different, we get pastiches of every band that occupies adjoining style-space.
Many of these songs, it seems to me, Peters could have abandoned in the composition stage. A few more could have been deleted after performance. Some had to be produced to see if they'd come to life, and didn't. And some, in fact, need listeners' reactions.
But if Peters hoped for choruses of "Pick only ten?! Are you insane?!", I confess that to me ten actually seems exactly right. My scribbled listening notes for the others gather my complaints into themes. Eventually the comments in the vein of "repetitive, a little lurching", "becalmed, with telegraphed chord-changes", "underdeveloped", "overwrought", "underwrought", "focused, but dim" and "takes too long to kick in", trail off into a series of minor variations on "slow" and "lifeless". A long series of "too something" citations includes Radiohead, the Manic Street Preachers, the Cult, Hendrix, MC5, "Rain in the Summertime", "Wild Thing", "Watusi Rodeo", the Jam, the Troggs, the Clash and "Won't Get Fooled Again". A few other songs I excise for my own peculiar reasons: "smoky, but directionless", "swanky, but I don't like 'swanky'", "doleful harmonica is not enough". En masse, I recommend these outtakes to anybody who wants background music that sounds like Mike Peters is practicing in your spare bedroom, and probably not to anybody else.
But the most ambitious claim made about this set, whatever we imagine Peters might secretly have hoped, is that there ought to be a good ten-song album scattered among these elements. And, in fact, after a lot of back-and-forth listening and some track-order experimentation, I have assembled one I wholeheartedly endorse, start to finish. As a patron of the preview edition, I could have voted in the poll that, in an excess of democratic enthusiasm, Peters seems to say will determine the one-disc edition's contents, but I didn't buy mine early enough, so the voting deadline has past. I am left, then, to tell you what I hope will happen, and when the real thing comes out we can look back and see if anybody agreed with me.
If they did, In the Poppy Fields will open, as did the first disc of the preview series, with the heroic, vividly U2-like "Close". The bass pulses, guitars ping and echo, and Peters starts out half talking, half channeling Unforgettable Fire-era Bono. The Alarm's most epic moments were always much more unmistakably human than U2's Eno/Lanois atmospherics, though, and when "Close" breaks free, Peters' voice creaks and strains over a bubbly, New Order-ish guitar hook, pulling the old decades along into the future.
If my wisdom is everyone's, the record will then slam, gleefully, into the exuberant punk-pop rave-up "45 RPM", three giddy minutes of the feeling of hearing your first Buzzcocks or REM or Go-Go's single. This is a new thing that the new Alarm can do, tiny and fabulous and uplifting through nothing more contrived than weightlessness, and where it got buried as track 16 of 54, it will bloom as track 2 of 10. And when they play it in concert, kids will bounce.
Mike Peters was in Coloursound with Billy Duffy, who played guitar in The Cult. Duffy's swaggering legacy, squandered earnestly in one of the outtakes, comes to proper "She Sells Sanctuary" life on "Coming Home", which right-thinking voters will sequence next. Peters' trusty build-slow-then-erupt pacing, badly overworked in the 54-song ordeal, is still exciting in smaller doses, and here his heart-wrenching singing and Grantley's crashing drums fan out across the guitar hooks, into the sunset sky.
If it's done right, In the Poppy Fields will even sound fleetingly modern, as the scratchy verses of the brief "Resurrection" invoke the Hives before slashing sideways into surging Alarm affirmation again. But "Free Inside", which ought to come next, backs up and starts over with old Waterboys shimmer from the days when the Alarm and the Waterboys were taking turns opening for a U2 who hadn't yet discovered irony.
My version of this album fights the Alarm's tendency to repeat themselves by flinging itself from extreme to extreme, so the polished nostalgia of "Free Inside" gives way to the jagged, anxious blare of "Edward Henry Street", two and a half minutes that suggest common childhoods for the Alarm, the Kinks, the Beatles and the Knack. And from there it settles back into the mid-tempo gallop of the expansive "Safe Houses", which takes turns resembling "All Along the Watchtower", "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" and Ian McNabb's Crazy Horse sessions.
And there's more to an album than ten songs, or there ought to be, so if you picked a different list, I hope you figured out a finale for it. Mine announces the beginning of the end with the glassily soothing "The Sea", instrumental save a few fluttery voices drifting through the background, and then launches into the album's defining epic, "The Drunk and the Disorderly". Do not trust anybody who doesn't pick this song. The outtakes are full of nominal ballads that are merely slow. This one, for a minute and a half while it sticks to sweetly twinkling piano, is a ballad on purpose, and when the band appears, it does so in the reincarnation of every blustery guitar stab the Alarm ever flung at a helpless moment of stillness. "Who am I? / Who are you?", Peters asks, and I can already hear packed rooms screaming it with him. This song, too, is spiked with hooks that sound suspiciously familiar from older Alarm songs, but the new band leans into them like they're reclaiming them from the ether, and I think we can afford a few. This is the Alarm, after all, or wants to be, and if we care now, we probably cared then, and want to hear how we got from one to the other.
And my farewell, and yours too if you line your universe up with mine, is "All Seeing", elegant and airy to bookend the opening, U2-like again but to me unforced and charming. An Alarm album should end with hope, and with caught breaths, and with potential. It should bow out with dignity, and without ado, with no long silent gaps or bleary late-night thank-yous from Mike or anybody else. It's easy to explain how the Alarm are less important than U2, or not as harrowingly emotional as Big Country, or not as rooted as the Waterboys, but all those explanations do is miss what the Alarm does better. They awaken, and exhort, and celebrate. They defy and define and deify. Mike Peters may be a trusted craftsman, not a mercurial genius, but he makes reassurances that we need, or at least he tries to. And whatever I make, in this village, I am standing at his door holding an armful of it, and a note that says: "1, 16, 45, 23, 51, 33, 47, 34, 26, 7". And "thank you".