Reconvening with the same trio of Verlaines as for the last album Over the moon a decade ago, Pot boiler is a hybrid mix of my favourite Graeme Downes record (Some disenchanted evening) and least favourite (Hammers and anvils), though these are relatively slim and ever-narrowing margins in what is a consistently impressive body of work (as described in a recent B/w here). Back on Flying Nun for the first time since 1990, Graeme appears to have been afforded a budget for brass and strings more or less throughout, rarely the case in days of old, allowing these songs orchestral flesh. Not that he is one to deploy this fortification in any way but judiciously.
Graeme has returned about as disenchanted as he was in 1990, probably more so, for there’s less solace in making art out of misery in middle age. The sleeve dedication, along with songs like ‘All messed up’, ’16 years’ and ‘Midlife crisis’, suggest that this is to some greater or lesser extent a break-up record. Not surprising if you look back over the Verlaines song book, which is riddled with failing romances, or at least relationships viewed in the coldest light of day – but little before has been this sustained or quite this bitter.
Perversely the highlights are the songs least a part of this blood on the tracks. With lyrics not by Graeme but David Kominsky, ‘Sunday in Sevastopol’ portrays that ruined and rebuilt city, and the challenge of writing music for someone else’s words has broken free one of Graeme’s loveliest melodies as well as orchestration with a suitably Crimean feel. Far be it from me to suggest that the singer is identifying here with Sevastopol’s ravaged and bloody history. On ‘If you can’t beat them’ Graeme knocks out a great little pop song about relenting and writing great little pop songs, even if, as he confesses in the lyric, those are ones with a musical phrase or two borrowed from 20th century French composer Darius Milhaud. ‘It’s easier to harden a broken heart (than mend it)’ objectifies the loss that seems to have driven Graeme Downes back in the studio, while ‘Real good life’ closes the album with a trombone-fuelled but typically double-edged high. The final lines ‘You’re a winner, you’re a shiner / But you’re out of time you’re too damned tired so / Say goodnight’ sound pretty final.
But that would be to read too much into the words of a performer who has always relished the drama he puts into his song writing, for work has apparently already begun on the next Verlaines album.