The Past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past. ~ William Faulkner
Artist: This Mortal Coil Release Date: 1984
Label: 4AD / Beggars Banquet Running time: 44m 17s
Howard Devoto - Vocals
Gini Ball - Violin, Viola
Mark Cox - Organ, DX-7
Elizabeth Fraser - Vocals
Lisa Gerrard - Accordion, Vocals, Looped Accordion, Yang Chin
Robbie Grey - Vocals
Robin Guthrie - Guitar (Acoustic), Guitar, Guitar (Electric), Guitar (12 String)
Martin McCarrick - Cello, String Arrangements
Brendan Perry - Bass, Drums, Bass Drone
Simon Raymonde - Synthesizer, Guitar (Acoustic), Bass, Guitar, Yamaha DX7, Effects
Manuela Rickers - Guitar
Gordon Sharp - Vocals
Martyn Young - Synthesizer, Bass, Guitar
Steven Young - Piano
v23 - Art Direction, Design
John Fryer - Producer, Engineer
Ivo Watts-Russell - Producer
Since Pope1, many critics of Art have been saying that which lasts is what deeply matters. Artists, particularly new ones, in turn dismiss the notion as elitist, canonizing pap. Thankfully, being neither (new or an artist, that is), I'd assert any creation smiled upon by time's teeth deserves a serious look. But to praise art, in a world much altered since the work was rendered, is a undertaking, still more to capture the first hearing, a protracted stunned shiver, in this case. If you were to make a short-list of truly significant culture coming out of the 1980s, truthfully, how long do you think it would take you? In the present case though, this record would be first from my lips on the subject. It is not a perfect album, nor is it suited to all tastes. Two further complications: first, the material itself, while excellent is borrowed, and second, those renditions have themselves since been re-rendered.2 Thrice-removed from the original form, and still affective, you ask? +++, I reply.
All art aspires constantly towards the condition of music. ~ Walter Pater, Studies of the Renaissance (1867)
It might be added much music aspires, vainly, to be art. What we have, in It'll End in Tears, is not like an individual composition. It is a museum, each piece selected, displayed, lit and graced with a particular emotion in mind. Again, some artists despise the very notion of museums3, but they are creators; best to indulge their wit, where we can find it. Yet almost every culture of the past, without fail, considered their songs and poems the crucial element of their memory. Their poetry and song were their archives, nothing else lasted; oft enough, little else was worth recollection. And five hundred years hence, as the same befalls us, this record (and its sister records, Blood and Filigree and Shadow) will be read as a floregium of some forgotten element in a strange trans-Atlantic culture, long gone. Until then, let’s have a listen, just ourselves. Song by song:
Kangaroo, penned by the Byronic and bacchanalian Alex Chilton (Big Star), but framed here by the crisp, cold voice of Gordon Sharp, we have a somber cello instead of Chilton’s hazy, wasted guitar. The lyrics, “I saw you next, you were at a party / thought you were so cool, oh so floaty(?),” are evocatively bent. You’re seeing the world here through the fractured lens of one very lonely human being, abject and attuned.
Song to the Siren, speaking of which, next comes Elizabeth Fraser’s elfin-bone bare revision of Tim Buckley’s famous ballad. No question, she turns it into a dirge, like she might be witnessing a distant shipwreck. “I am puzzled a newborn child, I am riddled as the tide / Should I stand at the breakers or lie with death, my bride?,” is a line which surely deserves to be written down for keeping, in golden script. Buckley knew, instinctually, more about poetry than most poets (and all critics), but he sang. Fraser, by contrast, is a Singer; but what she does with his words is jaw-dropping. Beastly good.
Holocaust, if the last track approaches something like an idyll, this is its dark echo. Another Chilton song, even more desperate than the first, sung by an pseudonymous H. Devoto, is punctuated by a full string set and muted piano that might be playing from the bottom of a well. Wounded is the emotion here: “Everybody goes / leaving those / who fall behind.” If there is a cut on the album almost too deep and raw, it’s this, which is high praise.
FYT Pirenne wrote, alone under house arrest, that the essential thing is to kill time, and not allow oneself to be killed by it. Listening to this short but desperately jarring instrumental, one can imagine maybe how he felt as he wrote it.
Fond Affections The guillotine swoosh that punctuates this song, and G Sharp’s laudanum-like lament transform these lines from saddening to near-suicidal, “There’s no light / at the end of it all / let’s all sit down and cry.” Yes, it’s a blast-furnace of bleak, dear listener; best to forewarn you. But it’s a glittering, gem-quality bleak, one that shatters the song work of a legion of maudlin-posed singers since.
The Last Ray, another instrumental memento from two of the Cocteau Twins. The haunting part, is that if you listen very close, particularly at the beginning and end, you can hear echoes of the other songs on the record. Remember, this a museum of emotions; corridors mostly dark, empty and filled with echoes.
Another Day, surely this I’ve said before, it being the one song that epitomizes the record’s achievement. Pure, staggering eloquence. No complex terminologies, no grandiose rendering, no intricate form.4 The words match the moment, and Fraser fuses expression with occasion. Roy Harper, apparently very pleased with himself for penning this, would I think be floored.
Waves Become Wings, medieval, bordering on primeval, this track is actually the first wholly-original vocal work on the record, an unearthly, windswept interlude by Lisa Gerrard from Dead Can Dance.5 The whole project was initially conceived as a sort of super-band showcase for all the talent on the 4AD label at the time. Wholly overseen by John Fryer, content hand picked by Ivo-Watts Russell, all recorded neatly at Blackwing Studio, London, in the summer of 1984. Gerrard was the only artist of the lot deemed to carry three songs in a row.
Barramundi, another instrumental atmosphere, with Simon Raymonde on the Yamaha DX-7 and Gerrard on accordion of all things. Waves wash, birds twitter, children romp. A neat musical artifact.
Dreams Made Flesh, with both members from Dead Can Dance, this is the sort of echolaliac lamentation which would keep them in admirers and imitators for going on two decades. Wicked good.
Not Me, the one song on the album, by Colin Newman (?) that does not fit, done in an erstwhile New Wave style; Robbie Gray, from Modern English, sounds frankly bored, and more importantly it badly busts up the overall unity of the whole, speaking in an Aristotelian sense. Not so much offensive, or even bad, as just wholly out of place. Pity that.
A Single Wish, a very subdued, even abrupt ending. Simple, untreated piano, and again Sharp’s hermaphroditic voice (whatever happened to Colorbox anyway?) slowly unfurls the last lines on the record, like he’s locking up for the night and shutting off the lights: “Now alone, It’ll End in Tears…”
1 Alexander Pope (ca. 1720) cannot possibly have been the first to make this assertion, props to him though the lyrical formulation: “Sense survived when merry jests were past / For rising merit will buoy up at last.” ~ Essay on Criticism, l. 459-60.
2 Yes, this is a record review, of a cover album at that. Some of those covers have, in turn, since been remixed and/or sampled for dance club consumption in addition to being abridged for use in motion picture soundtracks: Song to the Siren was molded into a hi-NRG hit in the early 90s, then appeared in films by Gregg Araki (including the record itself in one scene) and David Lynch. Call it cultural diffusion, I expect to see hear a VW spot adorned with one of these tunes any day now…
3 Picasso thought all the ‘necropolises of art’ should be burned. Valéry, as I recall, just wanted them periodically emptied of their contents.
4 Not having mastered any of that yet, I implore you to read George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language (http://www.resort.com/~prime8/Orwell/patee.html) maybe the best 12 pages on how to better express yourself written in this or any other language.
5 Gerrard wouldn’t realize she was the talent , ditch Brendan and go solo (with The Mirror Pool) for another decade. Now she seems to do a lot of soundtracks though : Heat, Black Hawk Down, Gladiator? Very strange, but good for her. Sad for Mr. Perry though.