With the computer battery counting down this will have to be a super speedy whip through. Reactions to this collection of demos and bits of discarded songs culled from here and there in tribute to Rankine and Mackenzie (the musical odd couple that somehow made wrong things sound so right) has been pretty mixed. Even though I snaffled this off ebay with some trepidation (who wants to be thought a complete obsessive after all that they resort to buying albums of demos, tsk) it was with some excitement that it turned out to be okay - more than okay. Meandering through sick cabaret (Billy's touching way with a lyric already evident even in early demos, rhyming things such as gangrene and vaseline) through to early takes on favourites such as 'The Affectionate punch' and 'I never will' the early incarnation of 'Party fears two', which are interesting as an insight into the song-creation process. At the risk of sounding pedestrian (ticking clocks are for once no good for creativity) It is also notable for the inclusion of Billy and Alan's aborted reunion in 1993 which resulted, for me at least, in a few songs of note, including the wonderful 'Edge of the world' which here is more guitar heavy and in my opinion the better for it. The collision of the more mature sound (the craziness of early years is lacking possibly because of that history) from both resulted in something promising but that is how it must stay, merely as a promise not achieved or going anywhere (as many of the songs included here found their fate). After all that, its probably most useful as a piece of musical curiosity which otherwise might have been lost.
Take these together - it becomes clear quite how eclectic and varied Billy Mackenzie's gift to music was. It's not always an easy or straight-forward journey (even if you would desire it so!) At times it can be frustrating - especially when 'Outernational' goes too far into the kind of 90s laid back electro that has you fast approaching torpor rather than feeling anything remotely approaching interest (something which also inflicts 'Wild and Lonely'). It's all a bit too sedate at times and horribly smooth. You long for a stumble, an ounce of imperfection. But just as you begin to despair Billy rewards you with gems such as 'Colours will come', which, despite its admittedly soppy sentiments, never fails to lift my spirits on a dull day, something to do with the sense of conviction with which it is delivered (why it works on this and nothing else is a mystery I am still unravelling). I find the rest of the album a bit of a blur, songs seem to segue into each other with little distinction, oddities such as a cover of 'Pastime paradise' could perhaps be more jarring, but, the torpor wins out. A curosity more than anything else.
'Transmission Impossible' and 'Auchtermatic' crystallise Billy's plans for two separate collections of songs, which Nude buggered up by trying to combine all the 'best' bits onto one album (Beyond the Sun). Both enable more of Billy's final work to come to light, presenting slightly different versions of songs like 'Beyond the sun' and 'At the edge of the world', on the whole slightly more raw, stripped down versions which showcase Billy's voice perfectly - after the melodrama and vocal distortions of earlier albums like Sulk especially, its refreshing to have more clarity around the magic his voice weaves with its stunning textures. 'Transmission Impossible' is best heard alone in the dark, without distraction; a series of tender ballads, mornfully delivered in the richest of voices, simply accompanied for the most part with piano. And that is all it needs. I would hesitate to call 'Auchermatic' more upbeat; it does have 'Sour Jewel' to kick things off, however this is tempered by 'Pain in any language' and 'the soul that sighs', the former particularly seems to me an exercise in anguish set to music. Billy also does an Elton John with a song about Marilyn Monroe, 'Norma Jean', however it is nowhere near as cloying and horrible as 'candle in the wind' so I breathes a sigh of relief. With relief the lyrics on both albums veer from quite accessible to quite baffling (one favourite is 'the wall was high / and the gallery seething / at times like this / all I want to do is spin) the pensive, 'um', face expressed by Billy on his own cover to 'Transmission...' sums it all up perfectly.
Lastly there is 'Memory palace' a joint collection of songs Billy made with Paul Haig (former of Josef K) when they had no career to speak of and some time hence to noodle about in a studio and make the music that they wanted to make with no interference. Rather then it being horribly indulgent (which it could be), it's actually a lot better then some of the record company sanctioned stuff. On a first listen, styles veer wildly (and I am rubbish at categorising such things so probably get this wrong) from melodic pop-type songs (take a chance) to more electronic-led efforts (stone the memory palace) to rock (listen again, give me time).
Expect the unexpected... and even then, expect something else. The most compelling singers, the most interesting bands, for me, are the ones which keep you guessing, remain a mystery as to what drives them, what stimulates the creative output. Where the music is more important than anything else, not the life which goes with it or the kudos it brings. Something must have kept Billy going until it all became too much. It is that which these, and his other albums, celebrate and even if its all we can 'have' (posession seems such a vulgar desire after all) of his unique talent its perhaps more than enough.