Since I have just a bit of spare time remaining before I begin a new semester of teaching at my colleges, I figured this would be a good chance to post another blog entry, to help tide my blog over until the arrival of summer break, when I’ll have more opportunities to attend to such things. This is also an ideal way to share my enthusiasm about three pop music rarities that I’ve been obsessing over for the past two months now: Lovelife by The Painted Word, Shoebox Full of Secrets by Andy Pawlak, and 24 Years of Hunger by Eg and Alice.
In each instance this was the only studio album officially released by each musical act. Therefore, the above title of this blog post, “Three from the Vault,” doesn’t really describe the albums accurately. Despite maintaining a small but vocal underground cult following for over twenty years since their arrival, these three albums have all been retrieved from the deep, deep vault of British pop music, and together they’re about as pristine, emotive, and rapturous a trio of pop albums as one could hope to find just about anywhere, from any era.
Before delving into these records from the late 1980s and early 1990s, I’d like to say a few words first about the idea of nostalgia, especially as it’s applied to pop music. One reason why these three quirky, far left-of-center albums sound so perfect to me is, no doubt, because I came of age in exactly the time period during which they were recorded and released. (I graduated from high school in 1991.) My ears gravitate naturally to these sounds, half-electronic, half-acoustic, untainted by the cynicism that would come to dominate mainstream pop by the mid-’90s. I think these albums still sound fairly timeless, regardless of my personal associations with the music of my youth.
The problem is that what’s typically referred to, and quite often unfairly condescended to, as nostalgic — allowing ourselves to over-sentimentalize our earlier years, while whitewashing their perhaps harsher realities — doesn’t truly apply in this case. Music is created both inside of time and outside of time; it necessarily reflects the trappings and technology of its era, and in the very best instances, it also transcends them. A recording of the pure sound of a voice and an instrument can tap into something much “older” within us, and it can simultaneously project itself well into the future, as a kind of aesthetic preservation. That’s what permits us to pluck from complete obscurity a fine album composed two decades ago and realize that it sounds just as good now as it did back then. As the great Southern novelist William Faulkner famously put it in one of his later books, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The Painted Word surfaced in 1986, when U2’s Mother Records label released the band’s moody yet uplifting first single, “Independence Day.” Three years later, in the waning afterglow of the New Romantic movement, the band’s full-length debut, Lovelife, quietly appeared on the British music scene. The album is sophisticated enough not to draw attention to itself, partly because it’s top-notch musical craftsmanship masquerading as mainstream pop. (Even “I Found Love Today,” a B-side for the album’s single “Worldwide,” easily trumps most other songs of the era.) The lyrics on Lovelife don’t intend to astound anybody. As the band’s name suggests, the words in the songs aren’t innately extraordinary; rather, they’re painted, stylized, customary but more colorful than the words that we use in daily life. True to the album’s title, Lovelife is entirely, jubilantly love-centric (“Yes it’s true / That the reason I’m alive / Is to be here by your side”). Or better yet, it’s surrounded by a buoyant cloud of what love might feel like to someone who’s young and overtaken by infatuation, with hardly even a tinge of romantic uncertainty about it all.
The slightly more down-tempo “Wilderness,” with strings that echo classic Burt Bacharach hits, accomplishes a similar openness (“Take your love into the world”), while pensive numbers like “24 Hours” and the nostalgia-limned “boy I once was” of “’77” penetrate through the more somber layers of ’60s-influenced orchestral pop. “Worldwide” readily demonstrates through its catchiness why it was one of Lovelife’s singles, even if the album version’s lingering, soul-inflected outro is what most makes the song worth hearing. And the lazily tender but no less passionate “I Want It Here and I Want It Now” might just be the record’s finest cut, with its smitten young couple strolling through sun-struck Paris, holding hands “beneath the blue armistice sky.”
Although The Painted Word did record another album, Universal, in 1995, the disc was never officially released, and only a handful of promotional copies found their way into the world. Like many other musicians who recorded just one or two albums at some point in the distant past, Alan McCusker-Thompson works in academia today. He lectures on commercial music at the University of the West of Scotland, where he leads the Master’s Program in Music Innovation and Entrepreneurship, among the first academic programs of its kind. He also currently manages musicians with independent and major labels.
As it were, Shoebox Full of Secrets is itself exactly that, a musical shoebox full of tiny secret gems, and a shimmering and vastly overlooked pop masterpiece. I was mesmerized by the cover photo and purchased the album, sound unheard, when I stumbled upon the CD at a used record shop in London’s Notting Hill district. It was a wise investment; today, the disc is worth twentyfold what I paid for it. And for only three quid back then, what a sterling album it turned out to be, flawless from beginning to end: thirteen dreamy, hard-to-categorize songs that proved just as beguiling as the album’s cover.
“Mermaids” may be the best example of this, with lyrics that are whimsical enough to match the boundless energy of the music: “We should be swimming with mermaids / Not praying for rain / In puddles of lace / Watching tumbleweeds tumbling / Feeding ice cream to rattlesnakes.” Sometimes darkness creeps in beneath the cheerful, polished surface of the songs. “Best Regards” tells an abstract wartime tale with tragic swerves throughout its verses:
“And all the children swam
Among the floating bombs
A gift from Uncle Sam
Sent with his best regards
Another boy was took last night
He had his hands and ankles tied
He tasted gun oil in his mouth
And never heard another sound.”
Yet Pawlak’s toughly exuberant vocals help to keep even his darker poetic narratives hopeful. The central figure of “Mother’s Day,” as Pawlak sings of her, rises above the surrounding squalor (“When it all came down around her feet / In the soggy paper maché streets / She kept a hold of love”). “All That’s Left of Me” and “Eskimo Kissing” are punctuated with similar bursts of fresh, surprising imagery, while “Love Letters” and “For Better or for Worse” rely more on lovelorn character sketches to drive the songs gently forward.
In between his boyband days and his current status as one of the world’s most successful pop songsmiths, Eg White wrote and recorded one ultra-sublime album with his friend Alice Temple, who was formerly a model in London and a BMX bike-racing champion. (Though first glances may prove deceptive, that’s Temple posing in the striking photo for Eg and Alice’s cover artwork at the beginning of this post.) 24 Years of Hunger has stood the test of time just as well as the albums by The Painted Word and Andy Pawlak, and perhaps even a little bit better, since Eg and Alice’s album doesn’t bear the somewhat outdated stamp of trademark ’80s production and instrumentation quite as much.
The songs on Eg and Alice’s debut rank among the moodiest of pop music, and their greatest appeal is that the lyrics never feel the need to spell everything out. Poetic abstraction is a very difficult feat to pull off well in the setting of a pop song. The disc’s opening number, “Rockets,” achieves this on a variety of levels, gradually but surely working its way into the listener’s consciousness, as Eg and Alice sing about how a bittersweet relationship can make a person want to take off right into space: “And when I touch my baby / So blue, she’s sad too . . . / Send us a rocket or two.” Against a backdrop of light electronics, percussion, and delicate crescendos, Eg’s straightforward vocals intertwine with Alice’s raspy, shy delivery, and the effect is almost indescribably gorgeous.
Elsewhere, “In a Cold Way” courts a distinctively jazzy sensibility in a pleading wake-up call to a depressed friend, while “And I Have Seen Myself” sounds indebted equally to Southern gospel and Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.” One of the album’s two singles, “Doesn’t Mean That Much to Me,” faithfully recreates early Prince-variety funk and R&B (“The same key that will let you into heaven / Will open every door in hell”).
“For several years I have been
On the edge of every scene
A stranger in my town
And even though they say hello
They would not be seen with me
I guess they’ve never known . . .
I wonder how come they can turn me away
I think it’s so sad, we may never be the same again.”
As sonically beautiful, radio-friendly, and unassumingly moving as “Indian” is, it’s unlikely that such a song could ever have been a mainstream hit. That’s a sad fact indeed, considering that pop music listeners would certainly benefit from the clever indirection and thematic seriousness that the song offers. Its message is a potent and universal one: discriminating against people or treating them like outcasts for being perceived as different also places the prejudiced individual firmly in the realm of “difference,” separate from the majority of human beings who attempt to treat each other with dignity.
So why are these three lost albums from decades past significant enough for me to write about now? When we suddenly hear a snippet of a nearly forgotten song from long ago, the feeling that we get of being carried back to our younger days isn’t merely nostalgic. The greatest songs and albums emphasize how memory actually functions. During the different phases of our lives, we move through time in ways that are both continuous and discontinuous at once, experiencing “a sequence of fixations in the spaces of the being’s stability,” as the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes in The Poetics of Space. Pop songs are like indelible gemstones that don’t ever change, but we do. And so they open a bright path back to those unchanged versions of our younger selves that remain trapped in time, the people we were before we became who we are today.