Friday, January 25, 2008

Beyond the sun - Billy Mackenzie

With Billy Mackenzie it always seems to be a wrench from the ridiculous to the sublime (which makes for exhausting and complicated relationships with his music), however I doubt it was his intention to leave such a bizarre trail of outputs. It comes to my mind (at the moment addled with guilt for dallying on the Internet all night trying to find evidence for the 'Vogue estate' album, rather than doing any serious work! (more on that another day) and mingled with exhaustion) that he always worked best with fewer people, although that is based purely on my assumptions made about 'Wild and lonely' which features no less than 22 collaborators besides Billy, and rumours about 'perhaps' which went through a number of producers. Before it was the stellar partnership between he and Alan which brings to my mind the hideous cliche, too many cooks... and probably too much money! It would be tremendous if it had all been intentional, some terrible joke concocted against an industry Billy reputedly hated. Maybe it is linked to the sad fate of the former 'rebel', the outsider who, when they become part of the system they struggled against, cannot help but succumb to its worst excesses in some kind of horrible inevitable perversity - given too much it becomes harder and harder to capture the magic of the 'struggle'... I cannot help but think of Foucault (the softer, finger puppet version though) who would probably say that it is part of the tension, the once dominated, in seeking the righting of their wrongs against the system, only becomes the system once they are in 'control.' Or I think it was Foucault anyway... Enough, lets think about music instead of this vain posturising of idle thought.

Prior to Billy's tragic demise, it seemed that he was about to drag himself out of the artistic mire he had fallen into. In a typical move for this consumer-orientated world it took his death for the back catalogue to be taken seriously. So emerged this collection of songs on Nude records (also home of Bowie-obsessed Suede for inevitable comparisons although Brett Anderson's voice is more of a thin wail than the rich outpourings of our favourite) which Billy signed to just before his death (unfortunately most of my research is from the 'net so I cannot verify it's truthfulness). However it seems that this collection was pretty truncated and represents only a small number of demos, tarted up posthumously by Simon Raymonde (Cocteau Twins) amongst others. Still it is a lovely collection, slightly mired by some bizarre juxtapositions of songs, mainly drenched in mournfulness. Retrospective listening cannot help but make some banal comment about the sadness in Billy's voice (also the strange mixture of anxiety/confrontation expressed by Billy on the cover image) and lyrics with regards to his eventual suicide but I do not see the need to do so. It hangs over the songs heavily enough for no further explanation to be needed.

Lets go backwards, as with posthumous albums it is difficult to ignore talk of endings. 'Nocturne VII' is deceptively quiet to begin, Billy almost mumbling, barely audible above a tender piano, slowly rising to a crescendo of voice, strings and piano until it fades away to whispers once more. Utterly moving. And then we get an example of the strange jarring musical juxtaposition that either delights or annoys (for another one try listening to 'Skipping' from Sulk and following it with something like 'Calling all around the world' from 'wild and lonely') - '3 gypsies in a restaurant' a rant about Hitler set to electronic eastern european tinged melody. It sounds as bizarre to write it down as it is to listen to. Next is definitely a return to form - 'Sour jewel' (such an image created by two lone words put together) a glammy, poppy, almost rocky (!) stomp which would not sound out of place (then, meaning 1997) amongst groups like Suede, Pulp, even Oasis if they were fronted by someone who could actually sing! For all his talk of chance, suddenly Billy comes over all fate - 'were you aware that we had to meet?' Perhaps it was a hidden command to all his past, present and future listeners? Then inexplicably 'and this she knows' is back to piano / voice ballad before you can say 'ulcragyceptimol' leaving you wondering if you had hallucinated the previous tracks. Still it has A fetching lyric about living by the sea - 'She lives by the sea / The sea gives her everything she's ever dreamt about.' 'Beyond the sun' is my favourite Ballad by Billy, a sweet paeon to a regretful life/end of life (?), although the allusion to 'crystal ships' is lost on me, it is his wounded plea to 'help me to understand / why others seem to plan / their memories' which appeals to me. I can't help thinking it's a good question as well. I was interested to see that Alan Rankine is listed in conjunction with 'At the edge of the world' which thrilled me a little - there is something about a lost partnership, for hoping that they still liked each other at least. This song has grown on me, partly for its low-key, soft rumble of bass and almost trip-hop- (sorry to use that horrible word) like melody. It's hard to describe exactly but there is a particular section where after an instrumental, Billy goes mmmm, returns to the refrain 'at the edge of the world / where the cold wind blows / in a sea of dreams / that seem to know' - its the last line when the bass kicks back in and something very special happens (another moment like this in 'Skipping' when Billy starts to sing 'Embarrassed etc.' for a second time, seems bored and gives up, makes a kind of half-hearted attempt at mmm-ing, returns to 'marvellous, lousy, could this be your safest way' with definitely more of a scottish burr than normal and then gives a small chuckle as he starts 'Ancestral etc' which for some reason makes me love this song to pieces). It the kind of moment which compels you to re-listen... '14 mirrors' is memorable for its strong chorus and meandering guitar although by now the lyrics are starting to concern about the narrator's state of mind. 'Blue it is' moves into un-quenchable sadness, just listen to the way he sings 'blue it is but I'll be there' and by 'Winter Academy' it is almost too much; in goes cynical detached listener, out comes a quivering wreck. Then we reach the beginning of our journey (although this is really the end) - 'Give me time' is tainted, fragile pop - now we know time is running out and there needs to be some certainty but will our hero ever find it? It is hard to tell if the atmosphere is made harder for what happened later; it was never finished, and because Billy never heard it as it is now. Was it meant to be so haunted? It is impossible to ever know.

So a tantilising might have been... but much more, one which should not be consigned to the fate of a ghoulish curio. Maybe I am getting soppy as I get older (and as I get more squeamish - I wonder if there is a link?) but I cannot help but feel there is real heart here. Rest in peace, Billy xx

(As an aside, writing this I was greatly indebted to the Billy Mackenzie Tribute site which has most of the lyrics to the Associates / Billy Mackenzie albums, very helpful for checking that you are hearing things correctly (which obviously I was not!). It also has a wealth of information including fascinating interviews with the Associates and Billy from the 80s and 90s.)

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