Friday, 29 July 2011

Everything Everything, Man Alive (2010)

Not that I've listened to the entire Mercury shortlist, you understand; not yet, at any rate. But this album is far and away the best of the ones I have listened to, and indeed the best album I've heard in ages and ages. The worst you could say of it is that it's the art-rockiest sort of art-rock; but, see, that's exactly what I like: a mutant Gentle Giant/Radiohead hybrid with Tom-Tom-Club rhythms. And there's real joy here, in amongst the wholehearted sixth-form-poetry pretentiousnesses ('How do I live in the present?/I make my own density?/And Ah-Ah-Ah!'); and alongside jejune fascinations with, er, playing video games, social media and the death of Princess Di. I mean 'jejune', by the way.  I'm not confusing that word with 'juvenile'.  Now, now, wait a moment. Am I giving the impression the lyrics are bad? The lyrics are by no means bad. I say that despite the fact that, examined in the cold light of day (let's say copied out and quoted in the middle of a blog post) they might look bad.
Chasing homeless cheerleaders, through the sewers lit by burning polythene bags
Pushing flame scorched limos to the oil rig tonight, for the promenade dance
Fill your locker with an arsenal, hieroglyphic every particle, mother all about the coal and the lava and the gas that we are, lovers on the landfill, digging me up to fuel rockets and risk
Look across now honey the horizon, I can see a shuttle birth, is it a boy? Or a girl? Or a gun?
But rare exceptions aside (I quite liked the line 'your pliable head is a walking hope' from 'Leave The Engine Room' -- and, actually, to be fair: there are quite a few lyrics here that achieve an actual Dylan Thomasy buzz, even if that's only on account of stopped-clock-right-twice-a-day-ishness) .. exceptions aside, the lyrics work not so much on the level of content as form. Specifically, the entire album is a miracle of intricate, complex rhythmic play that never becomes tangled or tortuous. The way the band fit their long, spooling lines into their frantic, angular, Futureheadsy catscradle beats is a source of wonder and pleasure.

Christopher Ricks (I think it was) once wrote an essay about how cleverly Bob Dylan uses unstressed final syllables as line-endings ('William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Caroll/With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger' and so on), something perfectly captured by the celebrated nasal dying-fall of his vocal phrasing. Well, listening to Man Alive it occurs to me that Everything Everything do something similar with the trill.

Ah, the trill. Years of sulkily assiduous piano practice taught me to hate the Mozartian grace note as a thing of sticky, fussy egregiousness; and the simple strikes of Ramones guitar playing cut through all that in a way that seemed to me, back then, enormously liberating. But now I'm older I'm starting to see the attraction in them: their lightness, deftness, their gesture towards complexity. Now it seems to me that the grace note is the principle upon which Man Alive is constructed; from the sweetly cheeky five-note synthesiser-whistle trill that ends the lines of 'Schoolin', to the lovely, mellow packing of sung syllables into small spaces -- 'the drummer goes on, the drama goes on' takes up two beats -- and an expert way of ending lines with rococo folds of syllables. Hard to illustrate that with mere quotation; but listen to 'Two for Nero', with its harpsichord theme, curling at the end in a trill, and the way that pattern is captured in the way they sing:
(I'm sure you'll make a decent) father, there’s a world war coming in
All the reasons I've been worrying
It's prog, really; the whole thing. Luckily for me I love prog. You might love it too, because it's classy prog with a proper injection of art-pop sensibilities. Plus a genuinely saving sense of humour, that hen's-teeth quality of classic prog ('who's a-gonna sit on your fa-a-ace when I'm gone? Who's a-gonna sit on your face when I'm not there?') Rich and splendid, and repaying multiple relistens. Marvellous.

PS.  Matt reminds me that I ought to have included a link to the band's own online lyric sheet.  He's right: nobody sits on anybody's face in that venue.

PPS: 'Photoshop Handsome' is simply one of my favourite songs of the 21st Century.


Matt said...

It's the kind of album lyric sheets were invented for. "I must know precisely what he's gabbling! I expect it's terribly profound!"

But, did you notice that the line "Who's-a gonna sit on your face when I'm gone" is omitted from the lyric sheet? Which I thought was a pretty good practical joke, because it's the line most likely to prompt people to reach for the lyric sheet, thinking "did he really just say that?".

Andy B said...

I remember first hearing "Schoolin" on the radio and thinking it was straddling a very fine line between spactacularly annoying and absolutely fantastic. A couple of listens later I concluded it was the latter.

I must check out the lyric sheet, but am I right in thinking that at some point he sings about "living in a Faraday cage"?

Martin said...

Ah good, I'd been hoping you would write about this.

Very much with you on the lyrics as form rather than content. My initial urge was the one Matt suggested: checking the liner notes to see if he really said that. I soon realised this wasn't profitable. In terms of exceptions though, 'Final Form' seems like a good example of matching content to form. Individually brilliant lines like "I'm gonna stumble and scramble my way to lactic ecstasy" but also more of a whole than other songs on the album.