Underappreciated Albums #4: Bob Dylan – Shot Of Love (1981)

Bob_Dylan_-_Shot_of_Love

2.83 on Rate Your Music (Artist average = 3.56)

Allmusic: ⅖

Entertainment Weekly: B-

1. Shot Of Love (4:18)
2. Heart Of Mine (4:29)
3. Property Of Jesus (4:33)
4. Lenny Bruce (4:32)
5. Watered-Down Love (4:10)
6. The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar (4:03)
7. Dead Man, Dead Man (3:58)
8. In The Summertime (3:34)
9. Trouble (4:32)
10. Every Grain Of Sand (6:12)

Is there a more uncool chapter of an artist’s discography than Bob Dylan’s born-again Christianity era? Even Radiohead’s ‘Pop Is Dead’ aberration and David Bowie’s wilderness years with Tin Machine have achieved a measure of naff charm by now, but the conventional trio (or should that be trinity?) of albums that mark Dylan’s fascination with evangelism – Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot Of Love – are rarely listened to, or even recognised any more. We’d rather leave them in the cupboard and forget about them entirely. For the first two of those albums, that’s not an unfair evaluation – they are embarrassing given the great man’s high standards.

Shot Of Love at least has a rootsy rock and roll sound, rather than the affectatious gospel of Slow Train Coming and Saved. In those albums the backing vocalists, led by his second wife Carolyn Dennis, sound completely out of place as Dylan does his worst imitations of Baptist singing. For Shot Of Love there is a change of studio – from Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama to Clover in Los Angeles – and, counterintuitively, the move returns Dylan to something approaching the rawness of Blood On The Tracks or Desire; in contrast to the staid, middling sound recorded on the first two born-again albums.

That change is most obvious in the title track, which bristles with an astonishingly live sound. Speaking from a European perspective, extended religious metaphors and pop music for me are by and large incompatible. In a recent chat between Ed O’Brien and Dave Okumu recorded for the Ninjatune podcast, O’Brien recalled a conversation he’d had with Kanye West where the rapper was astonished to find out that, in O’Brien’s estimation, 95% of British musicians would dismiss belief in God out of hand. That said, ‘Shot Of Love’ is one song which, with a powerful gutsy sound working hand in hand with an innovative lyric  – comparing a divine shot of love to shots of heroin, codeine, whisky and coffee. It’s no wonder PJ Harvey covered it.

Whether you view the album as religious conduit or a more secular enjoyment, the songs undeniably have more impact in their structure and their mixing: ‘Heart Of Stone’ has a wonderfully focused chorus, with sweeping chords and changes of pace, and while ‘Trouble’ is a relatively lukewarm 80s protest against signs o’ the times, the guitar and drums have a delicious backstreet vibe to them, as if played by street performers.

Still, though the opening track is strong because Dylan releases a genuine sounding plea from an existential swamp, too many of the songs on here raise him to a pulpit which grates very quickly. The songs are, on average, better than what he churned out for the previous two, but ‘Watered-Down Love’ can’t be redeemed with its plodding exposition of how sorely Dylan’s audience need to be saved. While Shot Of Love’s lyrics can’t compete with the dazzling heights of his mid-60s peak, there is at least an interesting sense of perspective at work on much of the album, as they represent more of an internal monologue for a man who needs belief in the absence of anything else, particularly any sense of self-worth. This allows some of Dylan’s typically enigmatic metaphors to co-exist with Biblical language which, by this point, he is more comfortable with. ‘I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man/Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand’ is a standout from the closing track, with ‘Every Grain Of Sand’ showing a more interesting approach to Biblical materials compared to the more mindless clutches of Bible foisted upon you on Slow Train Coming, which has song titles like ‘Man Gives Names To All The Animals’ and ‘Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others)’.

The addition of one track in particular to this album grants it an artistic depth which ensures I keep coming back to it, beyond any prettiness to Dylan’s words or thrillingly engineered sound; track number 4, ‘Lenny Bruce’. Composed in 1980, 14 years after Bruce died, its very inclusion raises a whole host of questions, none of which have an easy answer. Does that make Lenny Bruce like Jesus Christ? Was the writing of the song influenced by the murder of John Lennon during the album’s composition? Why did Dylan write about someone who, as the song has it, he only shared a taxi ride with? Why did he write about another Jewish cultural figure who turned his back on his institutional religion? Paul Nelson’s original review for Rolling Stone helps crystallise an alternative suggestion: that Dylan presents himself as a sacrificial Christ-like figure on the album, and his oddly bathetic overtures to Bruce are part of that portrayal.

Dylan is at his best when he presents, across a song or an album, a series of mysterious signs and lines, like a tarot card deck, which offer an array of interpretations. By the same rule, he is weak when he communicates through evangelised religion, which offers the same answer to every sign. ‘Lenny Bruce’, and Shot Of Love as a whole, are the closest Dylan comes to recapturing such form within his Christian period and, as such, deserve to be re-appraised.

 

Chime: Acid house as folk music

…’Chime’ started as a big riff from me playing this joyous Detroit-y chord progression that mirrored my mood — it was a sunny day and I was off to meet girls down the pub” – Paul Hartnoll, Orbital

Whenever Paul Hartnoll indulges in the memory of composing what Simon Reynolds called ‘the British ‘Strings Of Life’’, the same image emerges – a sun-tinged summer’s day, where everything feels just right. If we think of it as the British ‘Strings Of Life’, then it is worth thinking about its Britishness not as an incidental detail to where it was created, but what about Britain defines the sound of the song. Derrick May’s ‘Strings Of Life’, christened by Frankie Knuckles, connects with the American tradition of the dancefloor as an alternative spiritual space, for those from religious stock but barred from church membership on the grounds of their sexuality, where the combination of music, dancing, and drugs work towards a transcendent experience. ‘Chime’, on the other hand, takes some influences away from the dancefloor and closer to the ground usually claimed by folk music.

Bob Dylan was labelled as a Judas for talking folk electric. So what does that make you when you take folk electronic? Folktronica is well-established as a genre, even if it exists at the cross-section of artists experimenting along their own paths rather than being borne from a common location or identity group. Still, the aesthetic is vaguely definable, with a set of vaguely recognisable signifiers: the wonky guitar cut-ups of The Books, the dancefloor lullabies of Four Tet, or a more conceptual intersection of folk with technological environments, cf. Everyday Robots and Momus, a trailblazer in the field (pun intended), who sings about web coders and cassettes with the emotional resonance of seafaring heroes and battlefield roses.

‘Chime’ is folkic in a more abstract way. It is an amateur product, the result of a musician picking up an instrument without formal training and creating a sound on their own terms. A key feature of folk music is geographical specificity, and this seems to be a hole for such an interpretation to fall down: how can geographical specificity work with electronic dance music, powered by machines that have the same configuration in Germany, Japan, England, and Brazil? ‘Chime’ is a lesson as to how. No one would deny that local takes on house music have different sounds, but it would take a braver soul to argue that this new technology, instead of ripping up the rulebook with cybertechnic ideas, connects with older folk images, sounds, sensations, thoughts, reflections, and colours. It’s a particularly English type of cultural conservatism which might deter us from doing so.

The situation Paul Hartnoll was in while jamming ‘Chime’ is a scene which crops up repeatedly in British (or more specifically, English) art through the ages: a summer day drawing in, a particular interpretation of the pastoral mode which in music, drove Vaughan Williams and Delius at the beginning of the 20th century. It seems as if the unpredictable weather inherent to the UK ensures that such moments stick long in the memory and capture a large portion of our collective consciousness. Its place in literature is long-standing too; the titular ‘Chime’ recalls the opening of Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard’. The feeling of seasons turning in, of golden ages dissolving, of the flower of youth wilting, of death approaching, all of it heralded by the ringing of a bell at the end of the day:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,

The plowman homeward plods his weary way,

And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,

   And all the air a solemn stillness holds,

Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,

       And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds…

The curfew bell, used in English towns since the Norman Conquest, is the initial aural impetus behind the poet’s ruminations on death and fame. There is also Keats’ ‘Ode To a Nightingale’:

Forlorn! The very word is like a bell

To toll me back from thee to my sole self

The bell here is the vehicle rather than the tenor of a simile, but its sound is still placed against the nightingale which ‘singest of summer’. For a more authentically ‘folk’ example, there’s a ballad called ‘The Old Church Bell’, taken from a collection of 19th century broadsides. It comes in differing versions – with a darker tinge on occasion, but this is one which encapsulates how the bells of ‘Chime’ and their association with coming down from a trip to the rational, real world is in the same vein as Romantic flights of fancy, with the bell as a sonic marker of that:  

Oh! A mournful sound has the old church bell,

That swings in the belfry old;

How many a sad and merry knell

Has he rung from his turret bold!

The old grey-beard, and the peasant boy

Have listen’d to his chime,

As he chang’d his note from death to joy,

With the clanging hours of time;

Tolling on, with mournful knell,

A warning voice has the Old Church Bell.

Oh! His voice is clear as he gaily peals,

On a happy bridal morn,

But it mournfully to the fun’ral steals,

Ere the fading day is gone;

Impartial he makes his summons ring,

Unlike the courtier’s plan,

For he’ll wail no louder the death of a King,

Than he would of a poor old man;

Tolling on, with solemn knell,

A mournful sound has the Old Church Bell.

He has seen the sire, and has seen the son

To the village church yard bend;

And the deep fond welcome shall still ring on,

Till time himself shall end,

And his loud old tongue, like a lonely bird,

Chimes with a sacred spell;

For the sweetest music earth e’er heard,

Must yield to the Old Church Bell.

Tolling on, with solemn knell,

A mournful sound has the Old Church Bell.

Look at the final lines of the last stanza – ‘For the sweetest music earth e’er heard,/Must yield to the Old Church Bell’. That is the thematic progression of Orbital’s ‘Chime’, summed up in verse in a 19th century broadside. The bell may be used to ring in weddings, but its sound always leads in a downwards direction, as all things must, towards the grave.

Deliberately obtuse comparisons with poetry are one thing, but conjecturing sensory experiences are quite another – still, that’s what I’m going to do. Church bells were used as samples in other tracks of the acid house era, though more so from chillout – the two best examples being 808 State’s ‘Pacific State’ and The Orb’s ‘A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld’. Both songs are peppered with naturalistic samples like crickets, birds, and New Age, melismatic vocals. These might be mere signifiers in isolation, but the bells which tie those songs with ‘Chime’ imply at least a recognition of sounds which might be heard as the sun goes down or comes up on a rave, like chattering birds or insects. ‘Ultraworld’ and its parent album The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld are like an aural patchwork of an English midsummer’s day from dawn to twilight, as the album commences with a sample of John Waite intoning: “Over the past few years to the traditional sounds of an English summer, the droning of lawnmowers, the smack of leather on willow, has been added a new noise…”. In essence, the outdoor experience of the rave, and the accompanying MDMA’s shamanistic effect on making the user feel more connected with nature, contrive to give the music an added sensitivity to the sounds of the natural world which might accompany wandering back from a field, coming down, in the early hours of summer. Is it really too much to think that this is an addition to a long-standing English tradition? Was ecstasy not to acid house in the 1980s what opium was to Romantic verse in the early 19th century?

What’s more, English folk songs are usually irreverently anti-establishment: think of the Lincolnshire Poacher, who goes from serving his master to trapping hares on his land, or the Old Church Bell from earlier which chimed for both the ‘King’ and the ‘poor old man’. Raves were (and still are, though in greatly reduced numbers since the 1994 Criminal Justice Act) hosted on unclaimed or unused land, often with placards protesting for the right to freedom of assembly. Following the Second Summer of Love, the music scene and the squatting/hippie community combined with mutual interests, coming to a head at the Spiral Tribe-organised Castlemorton Common Festival. Spiral Tribe in particular drew on a medieval, folkic tradition for their parties, with sound systems that had ‘Circus’ in their name, drug sellers peddling their wares in what Simon Reynolds compared to a bazaar, and ‘terra-technic’ music. This music is not removed from folk because it’s made from machines, quite the opposite: the cheapness and availability of those machines emancipated musicians from needing lessons, a recording studio, producer, engineer – it could be made from the proverbial bedroom. ‘Chime’ was knocked up in a cupboard under the stairs which was converted to Paul Hartnoll’s studio space. As a sound and as a phenomenon in its infancy, acid house recaptured that sense of figuring tunes out, of getting to grips with tools needed to produce melodic, danceable sounds.

All of this is fine, but what about the actual song? ‘Chime’ kicks off with an insistent one-note ostinato which is so bright, it just feels solar. Very precise synthesised string hits are layered with delay which give it a lingering effect like the sun’s rays over the horizon, and it anchors the song like a pulse. The bass line palpitates with a bravery which marks Orbital out from their peers: the second bar of the bass pattern has brief entrances into higher notes, but tinged with pathos when it comes back down, recognising the inevitability of a sober end. The song is in the key of E Flat Major, which makes it suited to the big-arena-hands-in-the-air mode; a key Beethoven, Holst, and Richard Strauss knew was well suited to heroics when they employed it in the Eroica symphony, the ‘Jupiter’ suite of The Planets, and the tone poem ‘A Hero’s Life’ respectively. Those are big, boisterous pieces of nationhood and ‘Chime’ wears its cultural heritage on its sleeve as well.

When the piano kicks in, the piece develops the style which will govern it for its duration: six elements cutting and fading in and out, with the delay on the melodic parts creating phantom patterns as notes play over and across each other. It sounds denser and more complex than it is, which helps feed the sense that the song is the product of a community, one that it is greater than the sum of its parts. That is the political edge of such a new type of folk music: encouraging togetherness and love in post-industrial, Thatcherite Britain where freedom is defined by the rolling back of the state and the liberalisation of markets to allow, in theory, a class of worker-entrepreneurs to flourish. As we now know though, this competition chips away at qualities like solidarity and community. Acid house music and its associated gatherings were therefore a political act to reclaim those qualities, an act made more strident when hosted in a privately owned space, as most of the United Kingdom is.

After 7 minutes the one-note pulse engages in call-and-response with the ‘chime’ sample which gives the song its title. This is a confrontational back-and-forth, between (almost perversely, given the machinery involved) the sun symbol at the heart of the song, and the clock which, as the literary examples showed us, is the more measured, artificial way of measuring time rather than rising and setting with nature. The 303 elements, shifting in pitch to get higher and higher towards the end increasingly resemble birdsong – the muddy birdsong you might actually hear from a chaffinch or swallow in an English tree or hedgerow, instead of the steely chirruping in ‘Pacific State’. The battle is won at this point of the song, but the war is lost by the end as the song fades out the the synthesised bells looping.  The song is an ongoing battle against life, against death, against ‘business’ and rationality – it has a Romantic heart, and a folk body.

Three Soho Shows: Darren Bader, Bridget Smith, Wolf Suschitzky

Darren Bader – such are promises, Sadie Coles, Kingly St

Until 20th February

Sadie Coles describe their man as a ‘mercurial mischief-maker’, a near-cliché which is too often used to disguise artists who can offer up a contradictory one liner, but not much else. The art equivalent of the snarky, punning Twitter commentator who briefly rides the wave of social media approval during a particularly contentious episode of Question Time.

Darren Bader is not that; his shows in London and New York have tampered with expectations of curation and the meaning of art. But this current run feels quite flat. Any mischief Bader makes lacks punch and instead comes off as waspish and irritating. There is a hodge-podge og Golden Age Hollywood era photographs, books lying on the floor, subwoofers pumping out noise, and even an imitation of an Ed Ruscha print. The trouble with mixing together so much media, most of it reclaimed by Bader, means that any individual piece which would otherwise stand out is burdened by doubt. If the show has a broader point about the nature of exhibiting, then its individual parts are cannon fodder for satire. So when he assembles a gushing tap from pennies or a rotating board with the slogan (N)E(U)ROTIC, the initial charm is dampened by the distrust wedged between artist and viewer. such are promises has attracted attention for its interactive centrepieces: a chessboard and a boules arena. I wasn’t there for the start of either game, but I was pretty close and the turnout appeared to be very low, suggesting that I’m not the only one concerned that the show is to a large degree a joke at the viewer’s expense. For an interactive show it feels quite exclusive. But then again I would say that if I didn’t really understand.

It’s not always the case, but having a show which inherently critiques the collecting impulse is able to loosen its discipline and lack coherence. This is not to say that all art has to be subject to a message, but the litmus test of whether your view of, and interaction with, the world changes after looking at the art is not passed here, unless you count the mental seasickness from having been tossed around incoherent pieces. He has shown a firecracker wit in the past, manipulating donation bins to read either ‘All donations will go to something’ and ‘All donations will go to nothing’, and he has shown prowess with word play in ‘Heaven And Earth’ where he provided JPEGs with hilariously associated pairs of items; ‘anus and/with greyness’ being a particular favourite of mine as it depicts a colour card put inside someone’s bum. Such wit was the redemption in the retrospective for Christopher Williams, one of Bader’s influences, in the Whitechapel Gallery last year, but this show feels lukewarm on the whole.

Sadie Coles, 62 Kingly Street, London, W1B 5QN

Bridget Smith – The Eye Needs A Horizon, Frith Street Gallery, Golden Square

Until 3rd March

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Bridget Smith, Blueprint For A Sea (Rising), 2015, cyanotype print on aluminium, 108.5 x 230 x 4 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Frith Street Galleries. Photo: Stephen White.

A delight. We’d all like to spend more time perusing around art galleries, but it’s difficult to do when you’re thinking about that email you need to send and it’s 30 degrees inside and you’re wearing too many layers and your feet hurt. With that in mind, I can’t think of a show which rewards with so much from so little as Bridget Smith’s current installation at the Frith Street Gallery. Comprised of just four cyanotypes (a photographic print which provides copies easily and cheaply – its use in copying drawings is where we get the term ‘blueprint’) and a video, there is much to meditate on in its deconstruction of cinema. Turning the focus away from the screen onto the apparatus needed to facilitate its viewing, Smith’s prints are photographs of seats and curtains arranged in a symmetrical monotone which evokes Minimalist forms or, as the name of the show suggests, the rhythms of the sea.

The video shows a projector’s beam, concentrating on the balletic movement of dust which it illuminates. The effect is cosmic, as if the beam has captured a galaxy. On one level the work tells you that is what cinema achieves; it creates new universes using its own visual language. But Smith’s work enters greatness as this grace and gravitas afforded to cinematic materials – assisted by the subtle installation of sun-like hanging lights in the gallery – redraws exterior, natural landscape with designed materials of an interior.

Smith’s book Society consists of photographs taken of community centres, spaces which clubs call their home, but the pictures are devoid of people. This came as a break from her 2000 exhibition Mirage which depicted Las Vegas’ constant reconstruction of fantastical, facile environments in a desperate attempt to keep entertaining, to keep the show running. The Eye Needs A Horizon in turn resurrects a model from even earlier in her career, the Odeon series which shot cinema seats and curtains together in striking, colourful compositions. Throughout all her projects Smith depicts the psychology of space brilliantly, and this might be her most elegant yet. A room is never quite just a room with Smith, but a snapshot of a liminal space, caught between what it is physically made of and the intangibility of what its occupants invest into it.

Frith Street Gallery, 17-18 Golden Square, London, W1F 9JJ

Wolf Suschitzky –  Wolf Suschitzky’s London, Photographers’ Gallery

Until 6th March

Saul Leiter’s pioneering use of colour is currently stealing the headlines at the Photographers’ Gallery, a canny reappraisal of street photography beyond the black and white documentary stereotype. Yet hidden in the gallery’s bottom floor is another sideways take on the form, specific to London; the photoraphs of Wolf Suschitzky.

Taken before, during, and after the Second World War, Suschitzky manages to preserve the immigrant’s eye for detail in England whilst also demonstrating the cosmopolitanism it shared with its European neighbours; a photograph of a dancer at Hampstead Heath fair could have stepped off the Berlin cabaret. In showing off Suschitzky’s work the Photographer’s Gallery are, via his allusions to intriguing conversations and gratuitous use of neon signage, chipping away at the cosy, Keep Calm And Bake Off memory of the 1940s which has been knitted into our brains in recent years. Far from being staid, Suschitzky’s London is full of Cartier-Bresson style dynamism, with fountains spurting, children playing, and pigeons cavorting.

The fogs of London are now diffusing from living memory, turning them into the subject of treatment in historical non-fiction work like Christine Corton’s London Fog: A Biography. My favourite piece in the exhibition depicts bowler-hatted Londoners staring at some visage on the Thames, which has been cropped out.

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Wolfgang Suschitzky, Westminster Bridge, London, c1930s, (c) Wolfgang Suschitzky. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Westminster Bridge becomes an abstracted platform, disconnected from any apparent landmass.  The vantage point of the Londoners over the mist recalls the quintessential Romantic painting Wanderer Above The Sea Of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich, but their somewhat startled scrutiny adds a lightness of touch to the picture, as if they were greeting an old friend in a new coat. The vocabulary of rolling, dirty clouds punctuated by illuminated adverts and signs could easily be an awkward imitation of Manhattan, but Suschitzky keeps a humour to it all. His photographs of war or poverty ravaged parts of the city are likewise lifted from clinical documentary with warmth.

Suschitzky later worked as a cinematographer on films such as Get Carter, and his ability to construct a narrative with composed images and scenes is palpable. The spread of his photographs downstairs at the Photographers’ Gallery is like a storyboard for parallel visions of London that didn’t germinate. A testament to the power of cinema which Bridget Smith also harbours.

Photographers’ Gallery, 16-18 Ramillies St, London, W1F 7LW

Why It Works: Kraftwerk – Computer Love (1981)

The song most relevant to our times was released 35 years ago. 1981 saw the release of the first IBM PC, MS-DOS (the precursor to the Windows operating system), Minitel in France (a videotex service, a precursor to the Internet) and Kraftwerk’s Computer World, the musical prophecy of that year which somehow managed to identify the still nascent field of computing and identify the emotional strands of our interaction which would linger even now.

The title track’s three note motif initially seems quite disappointing, after the band’s previous album kick-started with spiralling synthesisers cartwheeling through the continent on the Trans-Europe Express. But it is a masterclass of artistic efficiency, channelling the pips and notifications which have become more prevalent in the app-driven technoscape. ‘Pocket Calculator’ seems charmingly out-of-date until you realise that the choice of device is merely a springboard to explore the mix of giddiness and ignorance which accompanies interaction with portable technology, the kind which follows us around all of the time. The song tells us more about our relationship with smartphones than their subsequent effort ‘The Telephone Call’ on Electric Café does.

‘Computer Love’ stands at the peak of this album, and possibly on the whole of Kraftwerk’s oeuvre. It is irrelevant to think about whether the ‘proper’ version of this song is sung in English or German. Even though some critics fairly point out that the scansion of the vocals at least suggests that it was written in English in first, it wouldn’t be Kraftwerk without the vocals sounding a bit unwieldy and computer generated. The band was built to serve translations of their work – to English, French and even Japanese. Their work transmits freely through cross-national boundaries, underpinned as it is by the technocratic globe which their music describes. By singing bilingually, they also ensure that at least one version of their songs will sound remote and unhuman.

The subject matter is ideally suited to Ralf Hutter’s deadpan delivery. The image he invokes is striking in its similarity to a situation familiar to most of us in 2016. Nights spent alone in bed watching TV (Netflix), bored by choice, swiping left and right in search of a ‘data date’; a soulmate mined out of big data. Each vocal line is offered twice, an indictment of the abundance and repetition presented by digital media, which leads to apathy as data repeatedly scrolls past. In a counterintuitive move typical of the band, the second half becomes much more revealing and more human when the machines take over. The instrumental section can be admired from a distance, like filigree wallpaper patterns, but you can trace even more by analysing it deeply. The synthesiser which punctuated the melody line between the lyrics in the first half and the synthesiser played during the chorus begin playing call-and-response patterns at each other, like distant male and female voices. They echo, tantalisingly overlapping near the end but at a slightly different rhythm before disappearing from each other again as the song fades out. The two users never connect. This is driven with an increase in tempo and a bass line which sometimes withholds or spits out extra notes like an impatient loading bar; all of which cements this concept of technological progress dampened by human stasis.

The second half of this song is the engine room of the Computer World album, and it deserves resuscitating when it was savagely edited for a radio version to serve as B-side to ‘Das Modell’, when it was almost entirely cut. The full version is inspiring and caustic, emotional and robotic; it is the satisfaction of seeing a new device welcome you into its grasp, it is the ignored message you sent to someone whose presence haunts you from SMS to WhatsApp to Facebook timeline. If Coldplay’s pilfering of the riff for their 2005 single ‘Talk’ has achieved anything, it is to demonstrate how their emotionally incontinent output has the earnestness and robustness of a belated birthday card. Kraftwerk, the automatons, hardcode emotion onto you.

Even without the technology generating the music, the song would reveal a lot about relationships. But now our world is built out of data, and it is what cocoons connected, yet alien souls in the night.  

 

 

Luc Tuymans – Intolerance, exhibition at ALRIWAQ, Doha

Qatar is a country which rarely looks back, preferring to enjoy the prospect of its future. A combination of a traditionally peripatetic Bedouin population and restarts of infrastructure mean that little of the past is actually visible in its capital Doha. The Sheraton hotel, one of the first towers built in the city, looks like an alien ziggurat from another epoch but was only built in 1979. It seems an odd venue then, to host Luc Tuymans, a Belgian artist whose preoccupation is history and its remembrance.

In 2009 Tuymans toured with an exhibition entitled Against The Day, a name shared with a novel by Thomas Pynchon published three years earlier. That doff-capping is a hint to the deeper thematic considerations they share with evaluating the past, though Tuymans’ brushstrokes are often banal and indistinct, in contrast to the searing maximalism of Pynchon’s prose. Consider their diverging responses to 9/11. In 2014 Pynchon released Bleeding Edge, resplendent with typically colourful allusions to conspiracy theories, paranoia and allusions to the deadwood of early millennium popular culture, cf. the ‘Rachel’ haircut. Tuymans got into trouble for his responses to 9/11, a time of gratuitous soul-searching and hand-wringing across the arts, as he made conceptual meta-responses to the event. Firstly there was an enormous, banal still life he exhibited at the Documenta in 2002. Tuymans’ painting called into question the very capabilities of the art form, particularly when accessing the event in emotionally raw short-term memory.  And then a year later he painted one of his masterpieces, Mayhem, which features in this exhibition. Mayhem almost looks like a still life, with barrels and tyre piles dotted across the canvas, but the ramps towards the left of the picture seem reminiscent of the skeleton of a plane: its fuselage, and wings outspread. The turning point of this century is not presented with gravitas, but via a dance of suggestion. Its panoramic perspective also puts me in mind of a famous painting by a Low Countries cousin of Tuymans’; Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. Whereas that triptych is read as a narrative with a code to decipher, Tuymans suspends a moment in time and leaves these fundamental outlines – an aeroplane, a cross, a prone man with a gun – ready to be ‘coloured in’ by those who choose how history is remembered.

Indeed, Tuymans’ technique shares qualities between the act of applying paint to canvas and the act of remembering. His paintings have a washed out, watercolour-like quality and favour dull sheen rather than particular detail. He presents images from the worst of (in)humanity, Nazism and Belgian imperialism, but with a deadpan functionality which raises the question of whether those acts anything remarkable to them at all – whether what we might call ‘evil’ is in fact a species norm. He experimented with film-making for a period in the 1980s, and the skills he picked up from that are obvious: he is one of the best painters at cropping, of framing the subject (particularly faces) in a confrontational close-up. Commissioned especially for this exhibition, The Arena I-VI tries to integrate the inherent advantage cinema possesses over painting: the ability to view the same scene from multiple angles. The details of what are painted in that cycle are indistinct, but there is a feeling of aggression and ritual, perhaps a similar depiction of mood from the uprisings and displacement this decade in the Middle East and Africa as he initially did with 9/11 in Mayhem. Tuymans’ art is amoral, it shows humanity for what it is. If we murder and mutilate each other, then that is what we are. Art does not dig us out of the killing fields but shows us how deep the holes go.

One of the delights in his recent output is a series shown off in the exhibition Corporate in 2010, some of which are displayed here. These are thoughtful and hilarious pieces, which alternate between ribbing at the omnipresent tedium of corporate culture a la The Stanley Parable, and aggressively lit, overexposed pieces which recall Francis Bacon’s infernal popes. There have been many attempts to critique such a concept not just in art, but in all fields, and yet few of them make such an impression as these. Given that many of Tuymans’ paintings are of the seemingly innocuous bureaucrats who facilitated the worst convulsions of the 20th century, this is unsurprising.

Not even domestic four walls hold safety in Tuymans’ hands. His interiors have a quiet Hopperesque terror to them which arises from perspectives askew, where walls appear more suddenly than you realise and Tuymans’ cropping places objects in such a way that you feel things are being concealed from your view. The artist has described how ‘most of my imagery has the quality of the silence before the storm’, and his interiors are the best example of that. That washed out, filtered quality means that his paintings are different from most works in that they are a reconstruction, rather than a construction. The paintings have committed themselves to a memorial interpretation before the viewer has the privilege to do so. Some paintings ripple off the canvas, because of a vibrant use of colour or because of dynamic impasto. But Tuymans’ appear to recede even further into the wall, as if concealed behind a layer of atmospheric dust.

For all that is worth praising in the significant collection Qatar has acquired for this exhibition, it is a failure. Doha has imported the materials necessary for a great show but despite the curatorial assistance of Lynne Cooke it is disappointing because there is no organisation to it at all – rooms seem to be arranged with random times and styles. For an artist as wide-ranging as Tuymans, this isn’t good enough. Moreover, while it is my personal preference to have text accompanying each painting in the gallery rather than a handful in a leaflet, the exhibition has very little information on the artist, his upbringing, his education, his collaborations, his nationality – quite something given how much a role knowledge of the past has in his work, given how much a simple prod can reveal a painting depicting something bland to be dripping in historical connotations – a prod I fear unenlightened spectators don’t receive. At the back of the gallery there is an impressive collection of preliminary sketches, but there is no elaboration on how these are worked up into the final pieces, or how the artist’s compositional process can be understood. While in Doha I also visited the wonderful Museum of Islamic Art, a delicately arranged selection of artifacts which presents Islamic art in all its differing styles, from Moorish Spain to Persia. That museum, without patronisation, holds your hand through surprises within what we might think familiar, and is a real asset to the growing city in promoting its native culture. ALRIWAQ on the other hand, seems happy to pay for the work and then sit on its walls. One of the few tidbits the leaflet does provide is to describe Tuymans as one of the most important figures in the revival of figurative painting, but that has no bearing on what is actually displayed. The architecture and design of the gallery is fine, and is impressively decorated on the outside according to who is exhibited within. Unfortunately, the staff seem entirely distant from the artwork.

The show is billed as a ‘retrospective’, but gives no account of Tuymans’ development. If anything, this exhibition is proof of how much a coherent narrative and careful hand is needed in curating, rather than just letting the paintings sit there. There are so many possibilities with Tuymans – for using contextual materials, for making you question your perception of media images, but the experience just felt lacking, either due to a lack of knowledge or interest from the people behind it. I’m hoping that this experience was just a one-off, and having done some research Sheikh Hassan has been an absolute pioneer at the Mathaf Museum of Modern Art in promoting works which have lacked a traditional audience in the Middle East. Admittedly while in the past Tuymans has said ‘for a show in a gallery, there must be a mental vacuum space where the show is conceptualized’, suggesting that he prefers a minimal approach, this show is simply too big, too haphazard, and too confusing for any viewer to conceptualize on their own.

ALRIWAQ, Al Corniche St, Doha, Qatar.

 

Why It Works: Kommunion (Alternate Version) (2012)

If you take the Manchester Metrolink from Eccles to Piccadilly, your tram window will allow you to see newbuilds springing up on formerly derelict sites, with railway arches and old warehouses peppered with units of restaurants and bars and nightclubs. The Metrolink is the shuttle which defines the city. A fleet of sleek radiation-yellow trams built in Germany pierce through it in resurrection of the trains which ran in the early 20th century. Manchester on the surface is a success story in Britain, of how a manufacturing city can survive post-industrialisation, while recycling enough of its heritage to make it feel culturally autonomous. The records put out on the Manchester-based Modern Love label on the other hand, suggest something deeper, a haunting in brick and steel; a part of the north-west’s past which does not gloss onto brochures.

Since 2010, Modern Love has consolidated about an axis of two acts: Andy Stott and Demdike Stare. These producers create Brutalist techno, dance music which plunges to a darkness and depth which Lustmord might recognise, but with beats. Demdike Stare are Sean Canty and Miles Whittaker, the latter of whom is currently based in Berlin. ‘Kommunion (Alternate Version)’ is taken from their 2012 release Elemental, a compilation of four EPs released previously – the original version of ‘Kommunion’ can be found on the first, Chrysanthe. While the name of the LP seems nature-inspired, industry is as much a point of reference: the first half of the song is a pitch-black rising from the ooze, a perpetual thunderstorm, which is propelled along with a mechanical rumbling, generated by a cog turned by tortured souls in Hell. The machines dictate the operators and wreak vengeance: the second half of the song features the sound of a piano being poltergeisted inside and out, with keys mashed and wire scraped.

The song is possessed; you can hear percussion morphed from demonic voice samples and hisses of white noise or steam. The dancefloor at its best offers a model of a sexless, raceless space, where all can join. The title of ‘Kommunion’ is devilish as it creates a wash of connotations: a more sinister comingling of souls on the dancefloor, or a dark transubstantiation, or a gathering organised by a faceless communist diktat. So many terrible songs from goth rock or metal or industrial try to scare you but end up reliant on the same tired tropes of SUDDEN LOUD NOISES or rehashed imagery (blood, Satan, puppets etc). The difference between them and ‘Kommunion’ is like the difference between your standard surprise-heavy slasher film and a David Lynch film, where the terror comes through having the rulebook of the viewer-film relationship torn up. To continue that analogy, ‘Kommunion’ is scary not because it tries to scare you, but because it presents an opaque world that can’t be shaped to pre-existing expectations. It’s the difference between shallow and deep surprise. The difference between surprises coming along like punctuation marks, or as if woven into the very fabric of what you are seeing or hearing.

Looking at the best-selling dance tracks for 2012 shows you the social media dancefloor vanguard: a torrent of self-celebratory piss-weak EDM tracks which are presumably meant to detoxify and empower the listener like a dose of Dulclolax. ‘Kommunion’ is refreshing because it subjects you completely under its will, trapping you in a black cyclone. That sense of circuitousness in the first half inverts the convention of dance music as an addictive burst into drowning layers of terror, the late arrival of a four-to-the-floor beat like a Manchurian Candidate-style call to zombified dancers.

It’s this sense of vastness, of resurrection, which allows the song to feel like it communicates on behalf of the entire city, dredging up forgotten voices. The current incarnation of Manchester reflects its manufacturing past, but machines have to obsolesce. They have to improve and economise and become redundant. The music of Demdike Stare brings them back and delves beyond the surface of converted factories and warehouses. It does not offer a direct social comment as such, but rather exposes the unromantic sublime of large-scale machinery, of the simultaneous terror and wonder it can inspire as much as any Wordsworthian vision of a mountain, which we can forget in our rush to tame them with clubs and studios and pop-up barbecue meat dispensers. It’s something to consider the next time you take the Metrolink and look out the window. And if you’re in the area, my Mum thinks the Harvey Nichols is pretty great.

Underexposed Albums #5: Aybee & Afrikan Sciences – Sketches Of Space (2014)

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Last.fm listeners as of 1st October 2015: 42

Deep East Suite Part 01 (The Call) (14:58)
Deep East Suite Part 02 (Response) (14:58)
Deep East Suite Part 03 (Sunward) (7:45)
K-Fetisch 01 (Kosmo Bahn) (5:52)
K-Fetisch 02 (Vibes) (4:04)
Knew What’s Coming (Sculpture) (4:10)

As fast as the blogosphere and social networks operate, calling an album released only last year is still quite premature, I admit. But listening to this album gives you that sense of immediacy: most other recordings feel irrelevant as this sounds so fresh, so necessary. ‘Deep’ house is all too often incredibly shallow, a watercolour of apathetic sounds and effects which is not designed to be challenging or even danceable; rather, something to nod along to, something ‘agreeable’, something that floats along a mean value of cool across the Internet music sphere with no danger or experiment orbiting it. Sketches Of Space goes deep. Sketches Of Space penetrates to the abyssal zone of the oceans underneath Europa.

Devised through 3 different jam collaborations in Berlin and the US, Sketches Of Space sounds like Sun Ra’s Arkestra crashing into Parliament’s funk spaceship with Flying Lotus analysing the black box for samples. It is a collaboration between Aybee, founder of Deepblak Records, and Afrikan Sciences (Aybee’s ‘bredren’, according to the back of the sleeve), a jazzy electronic producer of South African extraction. The first three tracks form the Deep East Suite are far and away the dominating presence on the album, even though the other tracks aren’t too bad at all: it’s a bit like the paleness of the second side of Autobahn (one of the tracks here is even sub-titled ‘Kosmo Bahn’, suggsting an influence of the German quartet on Aybee and Afrikan Science’s cosmonautical road trip). The suite is a glorious cosmic soup of all kinds of instruments and effects being toyed around with, and that experimentation is just so joyous, so free – like the exhilaration of hearing Ornette Coleman or Charles Mingus for the first time. Other dance music seems embarrassingly uptight afterwards. It’s all anchored with an offhanded two-chord sequence, a call-and-response between extraterrestrial worlds, which puts you in mind of the to-and-fro of Manuel Goettsching’s E2-E4. Yet even that groove is manipulated a different way each time, exploding over all sides of the stereo mix, sometimes syncopated, with stresses in different places: this is the closest I’ve found to free jazz within the often programmatic world of dance, an ambition Aybee admits to having on the sleeve. So many elements go into the mix but it’s not a case of finding which bits ‘work’ – the music is too carefree to evaluate it in that way; you just hold on and enjoy the ride. ‘Response is a bit less busy than ‘The Call’, as the mix reverberates much more and the central synth is adjoined to a serpentine bassline for a while. ‘Sunward’ powers the machines down as their spacecraft enters hibernation.

The second half approaches the loose improvisation of Miles Davis On The Corner: ‘K-Fetisch 01 (Kosmo Bahn)’ has a more conventional synth line, jerkily pulled from east to west by some spidery percussion and intermittent jolts of John McLaughlin-like electric guitar. ‘K-Fetisch 02 (Vibes)’ slows down the pace even more, to the point that the percussion drops out, leaving the other elements of the track almost staring at each other while figuring out what to do until they all exit. Some reviews see this as a revelation of the unfinished quality of the album, but Aybee & Afrikan Science’s triumph is to make the mixes sound so organic that the music dictates its own forms from the inside-out. The last track, ‘Knew What’s Coming (Sculpture)’ might be the most conventional of all, as it features a squelchy piano loop and vocal sample of the title. As with K-Fetisch though, the track feels like it has more legs in it but dies off before it can be realised. Part of that comes with the territory of improvisational jamming when releasing on physically limited vinyl (an intriguing choice – the music looks forward, but its format harks back) so hopefully there is extra material we will hear at some point in the future. Perhaps when the future sheds its affection for tracks designed to be shared, and hence diluted, across social networks, in order to catch up with the astronomic expansiveness embraced in Sketches of Space.