Classic Music Review: Ancient Heart by Tanita Tikaram

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Ancient Heart was an important part of my childhood, because it was one of the first new records I ever heard.

Nearly all the music I remember from my years as a little girl was old music by the time I arrived on the scene in 1981. If I had been able to identify historical patterns at that early age, I would have surmised that jazz became obsolete after Bitches Brew, and that the only rock ‘n’ roll bands still alive were The Ramones and The Pretenders. My father considered 80’s music a vast wasteland, a viewpoint I generally share. He was so desperate to hear something new that at one point that he gave into nostalgic impulses and bought Paul Simon’s Graceland.  After a few spins, he traded in his barely used copy for a Japanese import version of Help!. While I became fond of certain 80’s albums like Purple Rain and certain artists like The Replacements and Pixies, my father continues to boycott the music of the Reagan Revolution to this day, with the single exception of Ancient Heart.

I remember the album well because dad played it to death for at least a month, breaking the pattern of constant rotation on the home stereo. He was very excited about it, like he couldn’t believe what he was hearing and had to play it over and over again to assure himself that this new music really was good. I liked it, too, especially the song “World Outside Your Window.” When it came on, I would lift my seven-year-old body onto the couch, look outside from our living room window and sing along. I didn’t quite get the lyrics, so most of it was, “la, la, la, la, la, la, THE WORLD OUTSIDE YOUR WINDOW THE WORLD OUTSIDE YOUR WINDOW isn’t free.” I remember trying to master the line “that feeling of redemption,” but when I asked my mother what redemption meant, she said it didn’t apply to children, so it didn’t matter.

I didn’t find out about redemption until a Christian girl friend tried to explain it to me in my teens. I thought it was the silliest concept I’d ever heard.

My mother finally put the kibosh on 24/7 Tanita Tikaram and she appeared only occasionally in the rotation after that. She came back into my life during my teens when I was trying to become a semi-competent punk guitarist. The annual family holiday bash was coming up and somehow I got it into my head that I would learn how to play and sing “World Outside My Window” so I could surprise my father with it when we all gathered ’round to raise our voices in song on New Year’s Eve. I learned the chords on my cheap-ass Strat, then borrowed a friend’s acoustic guitar for a couple of months so I could really do the song justice. On the big night, when it was my turn to suggest a song, I announced to the gathering that I had a special song I wanted to sing for my father. Everybody went “Aww,” then someone called out, “Where the hell is he?” I scanned the faces in the room and nope, no dad. My mother shrugged her shoulders, then one of my uncles got up and decided to take a look around the house.

He came back a few minutes later and said, “You can forget about your father, dearie. He’s dead drunk and passed out on mother’s bed. I gave him a few kicks, nothing. He’s not wakin’ up ’til Valentine’s Day.”

I got my revenge by playing the song anyway, a performance that the besotted assemblage pronounced as one for the ages. It became sort of a legend in the family, and everyone would tease my father about it. “Oh, you’ll never hear a lovelier song than the one your girl played that night,” they’d crow. My father has begged my forgiveness and asked me to please, please, please play it for him, but I always respond with, “You snooze, you lose, dude. Literally.” My mother always smiles with approval, proud that her lessons on how to handle a man were so fully embraced by her daughter.

*****

Ancient Heart was Tanita Tikaram’s first album, and at the ripe old age of nineteen, she was in that phase of life where one is in the middle of differentiating oneself from the family of origin and its traditions. The opening track, “Good Traditions” deals with one’s place in the family and the feeling that Patti Smith expressed in some of her early songs—that feeling of “how the hell did I wind up with these people?”

There is a good tradition of love and hate stayin’ by the fireside
There’s a good tradition of love and hate stayin’ by the fireside
An’ though the rain may fall, your father’s calling you
You still feel safe inside
An’ though your Ma’s too proud, your brother’s ignoring you
You still feel safe inside
Oh, was this solo?
Was this yesterday?
Was this true for you?
‘Cause while all the rest have taken time, this didn’t mean a lot for you

The dichotomy of security and insecurity that develops as the soul matures is so exquisitely captured here that one has to conclude that either Tanita is an “ancient heart” as she defined herself in the next track, or that she was an unusually reflective teenager who had the presence of mind to step back from experience and process it with penetrating insight. The rather light feeling of the typically overdone 80’s arrangement is not the best fit for the depth of her lyrics, but Tanita Tikaram’s deep, distinctive voice and her confident delivery overcome the production gloss supplied by Rod Argent and Peter Van Hooke. I will give kudos to Helen O’Hara for a superb turn on the violin; I only wish that Argent and Van Hooke had cut out half the stuff they piled onto this track so we could appreciate it even more. “Good Tradition” establishes a pattern that runs through the album: while the producers seemed to bend over backwards filling the sound field with distractions, Tanita Tikaram’s voice is so compelling that she always manages to defeat their nefarious attempts to draw attention to themselves.

The arrangement for the melancholy and reflective “Cathedral Song” is more supportive, especially Mitch Dalton’s lovely counterpoint guitar. Tanita’s phrasing and command of dynamics is breathtaking, alternately wavering between hope and hopelessness, supporting the inherent soul-level contradictions expressed in the lyrics. The narrator is in a push-pull, run away/run towards relationship, all while trying to let go of a life that she knows is a dead-end street:

So take my time
And take my lies
‘Cos all the others
They wanna take my life

Serious for the winter time
To wrench my soul
Whole cotton, whole cotton ears
But I know there must be
Yes I know there must be
Yes I know there must be a place to go

And you saw me from the Cathedral
Well I’m an ancient heart
Yes you saw me from the Cathedral
And we are just falling apart
You catch me, I am tired
I want all that you are

The way she phrases that last line, “I want all that you are” is command personified: the words are sung with mini-caesuras between each one, hesitations that reflect the inner conflict more effectively than the words themselves. “Cathedral Song” is a work of restless beauty where Tanita Tikaram reveals herself as someone who at a very early age accepted the ambiguity that characterizes the life experience.

The first two tracks were released as singles and did quite well, but the success of the singles may have obscured the excellence of some of the songs that only appeared on the album or as b-sides. “Sighing Innocents” was the b-side to “Cathedral Song,” and is one of those songs that deserve more attention. The lyrics have been called “obscure,” but I believe that the obscurity is key to understanding the song. Tanita is attempting to establish some kind of connection with a guy who insists on keeping to his culturally-defined young male role, and Tanita answers his entreaties in riddles, trying to imbue him wisdom using Zen master techniques. Her main thrust is to get him off his insistence that they behave like young lovers—sighing innocents—are supposed to behave, at least according to the characters in movies and television:

I might just tag along
It only be shop talk, some
Well that’s something to do
Or I might take a walk
Down by the river, baby
But no, I won’t
No, I won’t be waiting for you

No, this ain’t sighing innocents
No, this ain’t sighing innocents
No, this ain’t sighing
I’m just trying to follow you

Authenticity in this world is something I find refreshing, but the truth is that most people simply don’t know how to deal with it and would rather everyone just stuck to predictable, culturally-defined patterns, especially women. “Sighing Innocents” exposes the absurdity of imposed expectations, arguing that allowing the other person to simply follow their impulses and be who they are is much more satisfying than following the script.

Mitch Dalton once again comes to the fore with his guitar work on “I Love You,” a song that confirms that Tanita’s artistic goal on this album was to write about life on the knife-edge between yin-and-yang and the hard lesson that to survive such a life, you have to become comfortable with discomfort. The key to understanding this song lies in the French film Betty Blue, a character study of a young woman who gradually becomes unhinged from reality. Tanita switches the genders, turning Betty into Johnny, and gives him a drug problem instead of mental illness. The push-towards is the beauty she sees in Johnny’s soul; the pull-away is the distorted person she sees before her. Holding onto possibility and hope through the first two verses, she finally has to sadly conclude that things aren’t going to work:

But is it possible, possible, possible babe?
Is it possible for you and me?
Gold and waves and Betty Blue
Are the images that lead to the clues of why
I can’t love you
I can’t love you
I can’t love you
It isn’t possible

The repetition of “I can’t love you” is perfectly sequenced: the first is the realization, the second has more of a feel of testing out the idea, and the third the sad conclusion.

My favorite song on the album will always be “World Outside Your Window,” and in preparation for this review, I trimmed my nails (sigh), dusted off my ax and gave it a whirl. This is such a great song to sing! While I don’t have Tanita’s rich, husky voice (really, I don’t smoke that much), I can hit the notes, and regardless of how I may sound to others, I just love singing this song! It has a fabulous, subtle build, melodic and rhythmic variation and a belt-out peak on the chorus. What else ya want? And now that I know what redemption means, I really get into that line, “That feelin’ of redemption don’t do much for me.” Sin is fun! Embrace it with no regrets and fuck redemption! Speaking of redemption, Rod Argent redeems himself for his occasional production overkill with counterpoint organ fills are subtle, tasteful and remarkably supportive. While I think the overall arrangement is still a bit too “big,” Tanita sings this song with great spirit, triumphing over the excess.

Tanita then dips her toe into jazz with the smoky sounds of “For All These Years,” a stream of consciousness number that provides variation and richness to the album. Much of that is due to Mark Isham’s trumpet and flugelhorn passages, which are pure jazz joint at 4 a. m. This leads to the album’s big hit, “Twist in My Sobriety,” a mesmerizing piece indeed. Opening with the title of a Maya Angelou book, the imagery is a surrealistic landscape, a collage of post-adolescent thoughts still in the formation stage. As such, it’s the power of the imagery that matters; any attempt to translate the images into a coherent narrative fall short. What we have is a series of musings on life where she describes random encounters, conjures up fantasies of assertiveness and recalls fragments of literature she’s encountered in her journey as a self-described bookworm. The first verse questions the value of living vicariously through books and that doing so is hardly a suitable substitute for real-life understanding:

All God’s children need traveling shoes
Drive your problems from here
All good people read good books
Now your conscience is clear
I hear you talk girl, now your conscience is clear

She follows that with the introverted good-girl secret wish to tell the whole world to fuck off:

In the mornin’ when I wipe my brow
Wipe the miles away
I like to think I can be so willed
And never do what you say
I’ll never hear you and never do what you say

The intriguing line that opens the chorus, “Look my eyes are just holograms” convey a feeling of emptiness and an admission that her perceptions are tinged with doubt. The following lines, marked by images of crucifixion, expresses the dawning awareness that love-as-sacrifice is false love, and as such, fails to truly move her from her sober, detached view of human relations:

Look your love has drawn red from my hands
From my hands you know you’ll never be
More than twist in my sobriety

The second verse is more elusive, but seems to describe encounters with two kinds of people: those who are different and those who conform. She approaches those who defy social expectations with a certain awkwardness (“Timid smile and pause to free”), but tentatively reassures herself that they’re really okay (“I don’t care about their different thoughts/Different thoughts are good for me”). The reason for this conclusion has to do with her realization that aligning herself with those who conform to social and religious norms is a non-starter (“Up in arms and chaste and whole/All God’s children took their toll”). The imagery in the last verse contrasts decorum with reality; instead of portraying afternoon tea as a civilized ritual, we have people who “Pig out ’till you’ve seen the light”; instead of journalism that educates and enlightens, we have “News you have to sell.”

The use of the oboe, so rare in modern music, intensifies the melancholy mystery of the piece. Unlike too many of the other songs on Ancient Heart, this production is beautifully understated, allowing us to focus on the troubled voice of a young woman in the process of sorting out thoughts and feelings as she tries to figure out her place in this strange, strange world.

The light, cheery arrangement of “Poor Cow” supports a light song about the memory of a hangout Tanita encountered during her time in college. “It was under the car park. It was a pick-up joint basically. You went there if you were really desperate – except they never let any of us college girls in, which was another reason for writing about it.” Her observations about lower-class teenage mating rituals are spot-on, especially when she describes the mating call (“Their own room and winter trees never touched these girls before/They hear the car stereo and they know what life is for”). It’s followed by “He Likes the Sun,” a story of how feeling your way though relationships is akin to feeling your way through the dark—a darkness that has to do with a lack of self-and-other understanding. While I like most of the song and Tanita’s rejection of the typical teenage stance (“I’m tired of chip inside/And playing bronze for cool”) I find the shift from a laid-back arrangement to a loud, uptempo passage rather irritating and out-of-place. Tanita Tikaram’s deep voice and limited range are not designed for harder rocking.

“Valentine Heart” is much closer to her sweet spot, a quiet, reflective piece supported by piano, viola and cello, and the most beautiful song on the album. Tanita’s voice expresses a range of emotion—fragility, passion, insecurity, desire—in what seems to be a recollection of an affair with an older man. The experience was more meaningful to her than to him, and she longs to relive those brief moments where she felt love and in love:

If I was a Londoner, rich with complaint
Would you take me back to your house which is sainted
With lust and the listless shade?
If I could have held you once more in that light
It’s nothing to you, but it keeps me alive like
A Valentine’s day, it’s a Valentine heart, anyway . . .

I want to see you again
I want to see you again
It’s so simple and plain
But I’ll come back and see you again
The lie is the angel, it doesn’t exist
I tell you it’s funny but you like just to twist
All my words it’s a shame you’re so young
My words, it’s a shame I’m so dumb

The desire expressed as her voice soars on the “I want to see you again” couplet is tinged with sadness and regret; the voice then retreats inward as if the expression of that love was embarrassing, the silly passions of an inexperienced girl. The last lines are open to interpretation, but my take is that it’s a recollection of coming home to a neighborhood where, as an immigrant of Fijian and Malaysian descent, she was not entirely welcome:

And five days to catch me around with my ring
As I visit the friendships that meant everything
To the girl with the clowns face
To the girl with the clowns face, ’round here

The juxtaposition of brief but failed love with the discovery of real friendships in the context of social isolation is what makes this song so moving: both express our yearning to belong, to relate, to eradicate our essential loneliness. Once again we have a song characterized by contradictions, opposites and ambiguity, all of which serve to make the song deeply reflective of life-as-lived.

Ancient Heart closes with “Preyed Upon,” placed in the difficult position of following “Valentine Heart.” Even facing that formidable challenge, the lyrics come down too hard on the side of isolation, so it seems somewhat misplaced on an album where living in ambiguity is accepted as the norm and the belief that while love can be painful, it’s still a possibility. The music is rather sad and languorous, and the chorus “Unless it’s all alone/Unless it’s all alone/You get preyed upon” feels like a complete rejection of human contact. It’s a rather gloomy ending that I have a hard time accepting.

Though I wish she had ended the album with “Valentine Heart,” Ancient Heart is the real thing. Tanita’s subsequent recordings did not chart as well, and according to a couple of reviewers, she became more of a “cult figure.” My take is that both the temperament and growth trajectory she displayed in Ancient Heart made a deviation from commercial expectations eminently predictable. Her most recent album, Can’t Go Back, is really quite good, and has a completely different, far less melancholy feel than Ancient Heart. Tanita Tikaram is woman who allowed herself to grow and change, and that’s a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful thing.

One response

  1. “I remember trying to master the line “that feeling of redemption,” but when I asked my mother what redemption meant, she said it didn’t apply to children, so it didn’t matter.” Ha ha ha! Brilliant.

    Like

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