‘People are psychedelic to each other, under certain ideal conditions.’
I’d been in two minds about reading Jonathan Lethem’s You don’t love me yet. Mixed reviews suggested a drop in standard from The fortress of solitude; that the subject matter was music didn’t help – having spent so much time with pop groups (close up and at one remove), I wasn’t sure that I could cope with a fictional account. (See also: Toby Litt’s I play the drums in a band called Okay.) Add to this the fact that the British paperback cover is a shocker, a Battenberg chick-lit confection that’s particularly depressing coming after the fabulous and perfectly judged covers for The fortress of solitude and Men and cartoons, and it looked like I’d be waiting until Lethem’s next book to resume our acquaintance.
But then last year I came across the Bye Bye Blackbirds, and their wonderful, harmony-drenched recording of ‘Monster eyes’, a song they construed out of the few lyrical fragments relayed by Lethem in You don’t love me yet. As I discovered on reading the novel, in impersonating a fictional group, the Blackbirds had added another layer of appropriation on top of the story.
Certainly You don’t love me yet is much lighter than The fortress of solitude, Motherless Brooklyn or As she crawled across the table – but it’s precisely the heaviness of those books, their concentrated force, which might allow a reader to let Lethem to have some fun. The result is a colour-saturated but not inaccurate picture of how a group’s music comes together. It helps that the novel is set in the underbelly of LA – from this distance, as mysterious a place in its way as the celebrity topside is over-exposed. It’s not perfect – aspects of the story are not as satisfactorily fleshed-out as all has been in previous works, and the novel fizzles out in the way that groups often do, but it makes a bold attempt to get under the skin of a musician, giving us the feel of what it might be like to play the bass in a band which comes to be called Monster Eyes.
You don’t love me yet is in no way overpowered by musical nods obscure or otherwise, but a Flying Nun follower can’t help smiling at an explicit reference to the Verlaines when the question of band names used as song titles is discussed. My fondness for minutiae encouraged, I begin to wonder whether Lucinda, who leads the drive of the narrative, is so called for the A Certain Ratio song of that name. And might the novel’s depressed kangaroo be a salute to mid-eighties jazz-punk antagonists Big Flame, who featured one splayed on the cover of their first single, and thereafter always adorned their sleeves with a large marsupial? It would seem unlikely, but I can’t help hoping that Lethem has both Sextet and Rigour on his shelves.
The Blackbirds rustled up ‘Monster eyes’ for a slot supporting Jonathan Lethem reading in Berkeley, which set me wondering whether other groups in other cities brought their versions of the song to life when he read in them. Are there in fact a whole host of songs called ‘Monster eyes’ out there now? Not a whole host, but at least three or four; Lethem promotes such efforts via his ‘Promiscuous materials’ project. Eventually – possibly after he is dead – a group may take it all one stage further, decide to call themselves Monster Eyes, and construct their set out of the song titles that Lethem gives in the novel.
What I couldn’t work out from my rudimentary research is whether the same trick was also worked with The fortress of solitude, in which a part of the book is given over to a liner note account of the career of Barrett Rude Jr. and the Distinctions. Much harder to pull off, I suspect, but has anyone brought the fiction of their big hit ‘Bothered blue’ to life?
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.