After the storm of albums in 1997, and – more pertinently – following the complete overhaul of our lifestyles following the arrival of our first baby, music took a bit of a back seat for me. I don’t remember much about the albums of 1998, and I knew nothing of this album at the time, or for many years afterwards.
I like to think that, had I been aware of it in 1998, or heard any of the singles from it at the time, I would have become a big fan, but the truth is that the only music listening time I had that year was in the fifteen minutes or so I spent commuting in each direction in the car – we had moved to the fringes of London, much closer to my work, and in a house large enough for us to actually have a room where the baby would sleep. The flip side of the move was that I had almost no meaningful ‘listening to things’ time in the car, and for most of that time, I was listening to news radio.
At least, I assume I was, because I’ve looked at the big sounds of 1998, and I barely recognise any of them.
I think we owned the Manic Street Preachers album, but that’s about it.
So this album came into my life about five years ago, thanks to the internet, and it’s an opportunity for me to contemplate the change in the way I have found music over the years.
Until I left school in 1980, I relied on two sources for information about what I should be listening to. I’ve covered both back in the over-long 1970s part of this list, but essentially, if I read about it in the music press, or had it recommended to me by friends at school, it stood a good chance of finding its way into my collection. Outside of that, I rarely discovered music entirely unprompted. What was played on the radio was the same music everyone else heard, and would be endlessly debated before any purchase was made; and on the rare chance that anything showed up on television, it would have been on a programme we all watched, like The Old Grey Whistle Test, with the same result.
Finding music entirely on my own was difficult; even the things I tentatively borrowed from the library were mainly down to having seen an article, review or advert in Sounds.
Once in Edinburgh, the options were much wider, but my tastes – as described earlier – narrowed considerably, and although I spent a lot of time in record shops, hearing a much more diverse spread of music didn’t prompt me, at least not for the first couple of years, to experiment with the music I bought. If it wasn’t on Tommy Vance’s Friday Rock Show, it probably wasn’t coming home with me in one of those square plastic bags.
By the mid-nineties, there was a much wider range of music covered in the music press I read, having migrated from weeklies to the glossy monthly Q magazine, and a lot of what I bought at that time was inspired by rave reviews in my grown-up music magazine. There was definitely more music available on screen as well – we even had a cable TV subscription for the last year in Perth and could watch MTV back in the days when it showed music videos all day long.
But it was the internet which changed everything about how I found music. Right from the early days of wrestling with dial-up connections, and seeing only text-based webpages, there were places you could hang out with fellow music enthusiasts and get unfiltered recommendations. At first, those were Usenet messageboards, but they were quickly replaced by online forums, of which there seemed to be one for every possible kind of interest.
I am a member, therefore, of the ‘forum generation’. The function of online forums has been largely overtaken by sites like Reddit (which nowadays does recommend a lot of good stuff to me), or applications like Discord (which I’ve never quite got along with, dating me, I suspect).
Forums, however, were – and still are, to an extent – where I could hang out with like-minded people and discuss the important issues of the day. Music forums, I’m afraid (and this is true of many Reddit communities as well) tend towards being echo chambers where there is a received wisdom about a certain type of music, of about bands, musicians or genres. They aren’t always the best place to go for unbiased recommendations, and it’s in places other than music forums where I have uncovered the albums which have enlightened the last 25 years of my life.
For example, I have been part of an online forum nominally dedicated to the world’s favourite sport – the one I had to learn to call soccer on arrival in Canada – for more than 20 years now. Many and amusing are the sport-related debates and arguments, but I wouldn’t go there for an unbiased look at how good, say, Arsenal are, any more than I would go to a music forum for unbiased views on the new Radiohead album.
Instead, it’s all the other discussions which make the football forum work, and for me it’s the discussions about music which have taught me so much over so many years, precisely because no-one has gone to that place to discuss music; it’s just a subject which comes up on a daily basis. Of course, people have their favourites, but when the whole forum settles in to discuss a ‘classic album’, for example, there’s a good chance you’ll read a wide range of opinions on it, and through those come to understand something you had previously dismissed, or – in the case of Deserter’s Songs, find something you had completely missed, but which is revered by a wide range of people who seem to have similar tastes in other music.
So it was that I was encouraged to give this album a try, having known next to nothing about it. I recognised the cover, so had presumably seen it in record shops for years, but I couldn’t have told you anything about the band, the kind of music it is, or whether it is, in fact, a ‘classic album’.
Spoiler alert – it is.
Thanks to the other great disruptor, which I will be covering in a post or two, the easy availability of streaming services, I was able to dial up a copy of Deserter’s Songs, pop on the headphones, and find out for myself what I’d been missing all these years.
It starts with strings and ethereal keyboards, before the kind of voice which makes you check that it’s at the right speed breaks in and grabs your attention. It’s a mournful song, potentially about a breakup, although it seems to be about a band breaking up rather than a couple, and while I’m digesting that, the accompaniment breaks out a musical saw, and I’m hooked.
I think (we’ll see when we get there) there’s another album on this list which features the musical saw, and it’s not exactly my favourite instrument or anything, the way it adds an entirely unexpected layer to a song just breaks down my defences, to the point that when a trumpet joins in at the end, I’m swaying along, fully engaged. The voice is tentative, unsure of itself, but perfect for the plaintive feel of the melody.
I cannot imagine a better way to introduce you to an album you’re not sure about – Holes is one of the great album openers, and now I’m ready for anything.
Tonite it Shows has a delicate nursery rhyme of an introduction, and helps you understand the voice; it builds without ever becoming bombastic or overpowering, and the voice sits on top of all this unusual orchestration, directing us to contemplate another mournful lyric.
By the time Endlessly comes along, with that saw accompanying a soprano voice, I have settled in to what this is about. I think you could categorise it as ‘Americana’, although that label is suitably vague to allow for this to have a couple of lines of ‘Silent Night’ float in without sounding out of place. It’s a glorious song, but one which would be easily ruined by being crammed into a modern production; there’s no place here for drum tracks and autotune – it genuinely could have been an archive recoding from the 19th century, with the saw and flute sounding less and less earthly as it draws to a close.
The next track, I Collect Coins is actually designed to sound like it was recorded on a wax cylinder, and perhaps is the key to the whole project – it’s intended to sound out of time, and not tied to a place.
Unlike the astonishing Opus 40, which wheezes in referencing Bruce Springsteen and featuring Levon Helm on drums, which shouldn’t be enough to make it sound like an out-take from The Last Waltz, but somehow is; you can imagine that cast of thousands harmonising along to the chorus while the audience sways along, lighters aloft.
And if that wasn’t enough, fellow Band alumnus Garth Hudson pops up on Hudson Line, blowing sax like it’s 1975 behind a song which finally manages to make me understand that these are all songs about leaving in one way or another. The received wisdom is that the band were sure that this was their final hurrah, and just did what they wanted, with the theme of moving on naturally weaving its way through all of the music. This one shows all its influences at once, but in spite of featuring everything from ailing lead guitar to asthmatic organ, never feels overburdened or rushed – it has its own careful pace, and if we are leaving the city tonight, we’re doing it on our own terms.
I’m listening to my vinyl copy of this, so there’s a natural break here while I flip it over – there aren’t many albums from 1998 where this act feels more natural, I’ll wager – we were deep into the CD era at this point, but this album just feels like an old-fashioned LP.
Another instrumental at the start of side 2 – The Happy End (The Drunk Room) lives up to its title, sounding exactly like a bunch of intoxicated musicians not much caring what their music sounds like, as long as they’re having fun. Except, of course, it’s all done over a carefully structured ostinato which suggests some care has been put into it. It eventually devolves into someone playing the strings of the piano before ending abruptly as if someone noticed the tape was still running.
All of which unstructured nonsense makes the switch to the delightful Goddess on a Hiway most satisfying. Probably the catchiest song in the whole collection, it features a verse as joyfully melodic as the chorus, some terrific wordplay, and the by now familiar orchestration featuring what sometimes sounds like the whole band playing whatever comes to hand. I’ve searched the sleeve notes for mention of a theremin, but it must be that saw again – the music is warm and organic, and it was roughly at this point on my first listen that I wondered how on earth I’d managed not to hear this for so long.
The Funny Bird threatens to bring the sound right up to date, featuring the kind of beat which wouldn’t feel out of place on a Massive Attack album, but the careful layers of modern (well, modern for 1998) sound are somewhat undermined by the same lo-fi vocal treatment and all the bells and whistles which have enlivened this whole album just refusing to stay quiet. Probably the most traditionally ‘rock band’ sounding track on the album, it still couldn’t be by anyone else, especially as it breaks down into its constituent parts after the guitar solo, only to pick itself up and go again, filling all the spaces the other songs have left open as it surges out over the horizon. If this album had been intended as one last blaze of glory, this song in particular nailed what that was supposed to sound like, fading into random sounds and cast-off pieces of string melodies.
Pick Up if You’re There is another instrumental, drifting along on a sea of keyboards, over laid with yearning violin (actually, possibly viola. If any of it is electronically derived, it’s really hard to tell). The saw joins in with a plangent melody before it all becomes unmoored and drifts off under a soundtrack from a movie. Identifying which movie would, I think, break the spell.
I think I’d have found this a genuinely delightful album without the final track, but it’s the gleeful leave taking of Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp which definitively raises this out of the ordinary. I think I sensed that this was a band capable of cutting loose and having a blast like this, so for that to be confirmed on the final track while they determinedly wave goodbye is positively life-affirming. If you’re going to use the word ‘stomp’ in a song title, the song really needs to stomp, and this delivers in spades.
As noted above, there’s a hidden track on digital versions of this, but it’s missing from my vinyl version, so you should go seek it out yourself. It’s weird, but in a really good way.
For such a quiet, contemplative lo-fidelity record, this really leaves me feeling uplifted and joyful. It reminded me that there is still an awful lot of music out there which I’ve never heard, and I really should get round to checking it out some day. It also made me wonder if I’d ever have found it, if not for my online community of people I’ve never met, but who challenge me on an almost daily basis to seek out new things. People online may be responsible for a lot which agitates and irritates those of us heading into our seventh decade, but they are also capable of a lot of good.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
Sigh. It’s taken me five years or so to fully appreciate this one. I really should get round to the others, don’t you think?
Compilations to consider?
There’s one called The Essential Mercury Rev: I should probably start there.
Not that I’m aware of, no.
Having invoked it up there, I should direct you to the concert film of The Last Waltz. It remains one of, if not the best concert documentaries of all time, and is required viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in this kind of music. Whatever this kind of music actually is.