Modern Life Is Rubbish would have appeared in my Britpop series if it hadn’t been for that damned skinhead controversy. From Wikipedia:
Modern Life Is Rubbish was released in May 1993. The announcement of the album’s release included a press photo which featured Blur, dressed in a mix of mod and skinhead attire, posing alongside a mastiff with the words “British Image 1” spraypainted behind them. At the time, such imagery was viewed as nationalistic and racially insensitive by the British music press; to quieten concerns, Blur released the “British Image 2” photo, which was “a camp restaging of a pre-war aristocratic tea party”.
I would have had to waste a lot of blog space explaining my way through that crap, diverting attention from the overall narrative. It was a dumb thing for Blur to do, given their already questionable standing with the British press, who had dismissed them as “bogus trend-hoppers” trying to latch on to the dying Madchester scene. It was a really dumb thing to do because they were also £60,000 in debt, had completely bombed in an extensive tour of the United States and were on notice from their record company that they had to produce something of commercial value pretty darned quick or find themselves out on their collective arses.
There is an old saying, “Great music conquers every ill.” Actually, there is no such saying: I just made it up. Nonetheless, the adage certainly applies to Blur because Modern Life Is Rubbish is so good that it saved their careers and turned skeptical listeners into happy campers. The turn towards socially-conscious, British-centric music in the tradition of Ray Davies and Paul Weller suited their talents, and the stylistic change from Madchester to solid rock played to their musical strengths. Though somewhat compromised by record company demands and a few questionable choices, Modern Life Is Rubbish is a vibrant, cheeky, ass-kicking experience.
If only they’d consulted me on track order, the album could have been so much better. Wait a sec . . . let me count . . . oops . . . I was only eleven years old when the album was released, so I guess I wouldn’t have been much help with the layout and probably would have developed a crush on Alex James. Hereby amended: If I could use Mr. Peabody’s WABAC machine to transport me back to early 1993, I would have told the band that they were about to make a big track-ordering mistake but that the problem could be fixed in a jiffy: move the opening track to the end and all the other tracks up one notch.
“For Tomorrow” is essentially an okay song damaged by serious over-production. It didn’t exist when Blur submitted their work to Food Records owner David Balfe, a truly villainous presence in this story. He rejected the album, told them they were committing artistic suicide and demanded more singles. Poor Damon Albarn had to give up his Christmas Eve to please his master and came up with “For Tomorrow.” Though written under protest, the song isn’t half bad, a more-than-competent slice of London life. The last two verses are not only very well-written but also gave the album its title:
Jim stops and gets out the car,
Goes to a house in Emperor’s Gate,
Through the door and to his room,
Then he puts the TV on,
Turns it off and makes some tea,
Says “Modern life, well, it’s rubbish”
I’m holding on for tomorrow,
Then Susan comes into the room,
She’s a naughty girl with a lovely smile,
Says let’s take a drive to Primrose Hill,
It’s windy there and the view’s so nice,
London ice can freeze your toes
Like anyone I suppose
I’m holding on for tomorrow . . .
All very well and good, but the melody is strained, the la-la-la-la’s that form the chorus nothing more than placeholders and . . . whoever made the decision to add strings to the arrangement deserves life imprisonment with no chance of parole. The music doesn’t fit particularly well with the other songs on the album, but . . . if you make it the closer, it takes the role of the song that tells you where Blur is headed next (a notion initially applied by Thom Yorke to Radiohead albums). Dump the strings, stick it in the back and the emergence of the album title at this late juncture beautifully summarizes all that has come before. The title itself demands such placement.
Such a move places “Advert” in the opening slot, a song that makes a clean and decisive break with the shoegaze-Madchester sound of their first album, Leisure. The patched-in voice of an American announcer proclaiming “Food processors are great!” fits perfectly with the theme contained in the album title and what follows is not the meandering sound of their maiden release but a band seriously intent on kicking ass. After a cheerful introductory build, Graham Coxon arrives with a series of slashing power chords, leading the band in a memory-erasing all-out bash. As Damon Albarn waits in the wings, you wonder how they’re going to connect such delightfully rough music to food processors, but when Damon arrives on stage in the guise of a bloke waiting for the next Underground train, it all becomes crystal clear:
It’s six o’clock on the dot and I’m halfway home
I feel foul-mouthed as I stand and wait for the underground
And a nervous disposition doesn’t agree with this
I need something to remind me that there’s something else
You need a holiday somewhere in the sun
With all the people who are waiting
There never seems to be one
Say something, say something else
Say something, say something else
The chord change from the A-G pattern to Bm-F#-A-G in the chorus is absolutely thrilling, with Albarn lowering his pitch to intensify the effect. It’s logical to assume that “you need a holiday somewhere in the sun” comes from an advert posted in the station, the empty something to remind the man of “something else,” an assumption confirmed later in the song. As is so often true in modern life, advertising is equally likely to produce revulsion instead of the intended effect to entice the viewer into pissing away their money. Our man in the subway is wise to the con, and knows that the failure of an ad to address one “need” ironically creates another “need” for which advertising has a ready-made solution (of course):
Advertisements are here for rapid persuasion
If you stare too long you lose your appetite
A nervous disposition doesn’t agree with this
You need fast relief from aches and stomach pains
Our hero tries to get the ads out of his head by counting away the time, but the ad has planted a small voice in his brain to remind him of the holiday, this time attached to a “special offer!” By this time, we can all empathize with his aching desire for the ads to “Say something else!” “Advert” is a great opener that deserved the top slot, and when I listen to the album on my nano, I change the track order on iTunes to put the world right.
The disastrous U. S. tour did have the positive effect of getting Damon Albarn hooked on Ray Davies, and the album features some rock-oriented character sketches similar to what you’d find on a Golden Period Kinks album. The first is “Colin Zeal,” which opens with a rolling bass run from Alex James that prefaces a simple Dm-Am chord progression attached to a latin-tinged beat. The rhythm is then overlaid with a Graham Coxon solo featuring disciplined use of the wah-wah pedal. Damon Albarn’s vocal is delivered in a flat, matter-of-fact tone as he describes a man obsessed with fitting in:
Colin Zeal knows the value of mass appeal
He’s a pedestrian walker, he’s a civil talker
He’s an affable man with a plausible plan
Keeps his eye on the news, keeps his future in hand
A brief caesura marked by the phrase “And then he . . .” leads us into the chorus, where key and tempo changes herald the significance of what Colin considers his most important achievement:
Looks at his watch, he’s on time yet again
Looks at his watch, he’s on time yet again
He’s pleased with himself, he’s pleased with himself
He’s so pleased with himself, ah ha
I die laughing every time, and I love the way Blur shifts seamlessly from latin to rock in verse and chorus.
The title of “Pressure on Julian” gives one hope of another witty character sketch, but alas, it’s a bad inside joke involving Julian Cope, the lead singer of The Teardrop Explodes. Cope’s musical collaborator during their heyday was none other than David Balfe, and apparently Damon Albarn liked to insert references to Julian because it “drove him bananas.” The sophomoric motivation wastes an interesting piece of music, with Coxon’s guitar sounding like a malfunctioning siren and Alex James thumping away with all his might.
“Star Shaped” takes us back to the existential challenges of modern humanity with a character who is hoping for a future as an “unconscious man” where he can revel in the feeling of being unnecessary, fully interchangeable with another organic unit. The voices in his head (manifested in trailing responses sung in falsetto) encourage him to follow this hopeless course of action by telling the bloke he’s “star-shaped,” i.e., has the right DNA to make a real splash in the world (likely echoes of corporate bullshit). This is a pretty accurate representation of the psychological state of many in the workforce, who know in their hearts that climbing the corporate ladder is a completely meaningless effort and that “starring” in such a role both requires and results in an unconscious state where learned behavior conquers native intelligence. Musically, the song is marked by dramatic and demanding chord shifts in different keys, so if you’re looking to increase your chord change speed and improve your fretboard dexterity, look up the tabs online and have at it. But before you go there, listen to one of the loveliest oboe solos on record, courtesy of the well-traveled, multi-instrumentalist Ms. Kate St. John.
While the routine of modern life can be soul-draining, it also has the advantage of comfortable and comforting predictability. This is the slant taken in the song “Blue Jeans,” a more melancholy look at the issue of psychological survival. The opening drum pattern from Dave Rowntree foreshadows a Phil Spector-like arrangement with its deep thumps and echoes, but the song turns out to be one of the gentler songs on the record, marked by a not-quite mid-tempo rhythm with smoothly syncopated punctuation, morose-sounding keyboards, imbalanced lines in the verses, and a gorgeous melodic line supported by plethora of tasteful chord changes. The narrator is a shy and awkward sort, the kind of guy you never notice at the open-air markets or anywhere else for that matter. He admirably takes pleasure in the small blessings of the humdrum:
Air cushioned soles
I bought them on the Portobello Road on a Saturday
I stop and stare awhile
A common pastime when conversation goes astray
And don’t think I’m walking out of this
She don’t mind
Whatever I say, whatever I say
I don’t really want to change a thing
I want to stay this way forever
An uplifting note of triumph comes from an organ at a higher pitch between verses, a sort of ironic validation of the man’s choices. The second verse indicates he’s fully aware of the risks of banality, just like the “unconscious man” in “Star Shaped”:
Blue, blue jeans I wear them every day
There’s no particular reason to change
My thoughts are getting banal,
I can’t help it but I won’t pull out hair another day
By this point in the song, the arrangement has taken on more texture with Graham Coxon’s guitar moving to the fore, but remarkably, the melancholy mood isn’t compromised but intensified. A quick, rising riff from Coxon cues the song’s bridge, a slight variation from the main theme that seamlessly blends with the chorus:
You know it will be with you
And don’t give up on me yet
Don’t think I’m walking out of this
She don’t mind
Whatever I say, whatever I say . . .
That passage makes me want to reach out and hug the guy and make all his insecurities go away. While Blur is certainly accomplished at the skeptical-cynical perspective on life, let us not forget that they could activate empathy as well, with often beautiful results.
Next up are two of the singles from the album. “Chemical World” was another track commissioned by the record company masters, this time the American contingent. The power chords are grunge but the dominant beat is positively bouncy and un-grunge-like. Graham Coxon has a good time with some sweet filler riffs and fulfilling the lead role in the call-and-response vocals with Albarn. It’s a solid rocker that was understandably chosen as one of the singles, but the lyrics fall short of conveying a meaning that comes anywhere near impactful. Tacked on to the end is an “Intermission” that is best described by the phrase “boys will be boys.”
“Sunday Sunday” falls somewhere between a thumping rocker and a tune played by the town band perched in the gazebo on the village square; with a little imagination and a downward adjustment in power, the song would fit quite nicely into Village Green Preservation Society. Keeping with the theme of routine, the song describes the narcotic effects of the typical Sunday meal and the traditional boring activities of walks in the park and Sunday night bingo. Everyone in this song falls asleep from an overdose of food or old age, but Blur is a good enough band to keep the listener awake, ramping up the tempo midway through the song for a little boost. I would have chosen “Advert” or “Blue Jeans” over “Sunday Sunday” for the single release, but the song definitely fits in with Blur’s desire to produce British-centric music.
“Oily Water” was singled out by critics for echoing Blur’s short-lived shoegaze era, but I’ll just say right now that I love the sound of those chords, shimmering in so much vibrato that they seem out of sync with conventional notions of time. Albarn sings through a filter similar to the one used by John Lennon on “Tomorrow Never Knows” to mimic the sound of “the Dalai Lama singing from a mountaintop.” The lyrics aren’t half as memorable, though, and the arrangement gets too dark and heavy for the content.
The working title for the album was Britain Versus America, a message in itself but more colorfully explained by Alex James: “It was fucking scary how American everything’s becoming . . . so the whole thing was a fucking big two fingers up to America.” When I was old enough to pick up on the anti-Americanism I experienced when traveling to Europe to see the relatives, I remember feeling hurt (I think I was about twelve) and demanded an explanation from my mother (most of the shit came from the French, not the Irish). She responded by giving me a thorough history lesson, but when she was finished, my dad summed it up in a more pithy manner.
“Most Americans are alright, but we have more than our fair share of assholes who make the rest of us look bad.”
Blur avoided direct commentary on the American scene, and since they all left the States with a bad taste in their mouths, that was probably a good idea. What we get instead is “Miss America,” a song spare on lyrics but full of musical imagery that gets the point across. The exceptionally relaxed music consists of little more than acoustic guitar and claves and sounds like it was recorded in an echo chamber, the perfect environment for an intellectually-challenged beauty who goes through life with people constantly telling her how wonderful she is. She begins the song sitting in the shower “plucking hours from the sky,” makes a phone call, wishes people well with infinite sweetness and politely engages in empty conversation with well-wishers (“Here is here and I am here, where are you?”). There really isn’t much more, which I believe is the point. Miss America is a symbol of a culture that is all surface, no substance and anything but genuine.
Blur now shifts to overdrive with three solid rockers in a row. “Villa Rosie” doesn’t exist in the real world, and the unusual chord structure suggests that if it were a real-life watering hole, you’d find it somewhere far off the beaten path. The lyrics aren’t much help in describing the ambiance or the clientele, leading me to believe this was another inside joke among the band members, similar to “Pressure on Julian.” The guitar work is definitely on the exuberant side, and the “woo-hoos” add to the playfulness of the piece.
“Coping” is the strongest of the three, combining hard rock drive fueled by the combination of electric and acoustic guitar hammering out the chords. The lyrics are coherent and interesting, covering the fuck-it level ennui later explored in the context of suburban life in “Tracy Jacks.” We’ll start our psychoanalysis of the song with the definition of “coping mechanisms” from goodtherapy.org:
Coping mechanisms are the strategies people often use in the face of stress and/or trauma to help manage painful or difficult emotions. Coping mechanisms can help people adjust to stressful events while helping them maintain their emotional well-being.
With modern life designed to produce more stressors than most humans can handle, coping mechanisms are seen as valuable tools to help us get through the day . . . but pay careful attention to the underlying assumption. Coping mechanisms are necessary because human beings are unable or unwilling to fix the problems that lead us to booze, drugs, cigarettes, medication, meditation or a million other temporary fixes. “Coping” calls that assumption into question:
It’s a sorry state you’re getting in
The same excuse is wearing thin
There’s no self control left in me
What was not will never will be
And I’m too tired to care about it
Can’t you see this in my face, my face
When I feel this strange can I go through this again?
When I feel this strange can I go through this again?
(…Or am I just coping?)
The high heat of the smoking guitars is somewhat offset by wild synthesizer runs, adding a bit of wackiness to the piece. I would have preferred a Coxon solo in the instrumental break, but the synthesizer does have the advantage of adding to the feeling of mental instability that runs through the lyrics.
“Turn It Up” has a palpable resemblance to the more melodic Oasis songs, and from a musical perspective, it’s one of the best pop-rock tracks Blur ever did. But the lyrics . . . what the fuck?
Kazoo, kazoo you are mine, kazoo kazoo every time
Turn it up, turn it off, turn it in (x2)
Anyway you choose, anyway you choose at all
Some days you get too much, some days it all gets too much
Kazoo, kazoo you are mine, why do you turn your back on me?
Turn it up, turn it off, turn it in (x4)
Anyway you choose, anyway you choose at all
Some days you do too much, some days it all gets too much
Kazoo, kazoo you are mine, kazoo kazoo every time
Turn it up, turn it off, turn it in (x4)
Seriously, boys, the melody and chord structure deserved a far better fate than this.
My final piece of evidence in favor of changing the track order to place “For Tomorrow” at the end is the actual album closer, “Resigned.” The music is dull, dull, dull, the lyrics say nothing much and the track goes on and on and on long after the two short verses fade into memory. Once the song finally gives up the ghost, Blur inserts a “Commercial Break” where the boys take out all their testosterone on their unsuspecting instruments. Yes, boys will be boys, but I suppose they deserved some release after all they’d gone through to make this record.
Damon Albarn’s retrospective view on the creation of Modern Life Is Rubbish is a valuable lesson in motivation: “Suede and America fuelled my desire to prove to everyone that Blur were worth it. There was nothing more important in my life.” The dumb ass sentiments featured on Successory products won’t supply a hundredth of the motivation of a threat to one’s existence or identity. Though I think he was too hard on Brett Anderson (and that his views were skewed by personal noise), Suede and America provided the foils he and the band needed to up their game. What’s wonderful about Modern Life Is Rubbish is the way Blur responded to that threat—not by getting serious, but by getting playful.
My recent reviews of Elvis Costello reminded me that I’m way, way behind in my plan to review more June Tabor albums and give her a coveted spot on my navigation menu.
Okay, I’ll admit that no one covets a spot on my navigation menu, but the phrase had a nice ring to it.
Costello wrote two songs for June Tabor in the early 90’s: “All This Useless Beauty” on 1992’s Angel Tiger; “I Want to Vanish” on Against the Streams in 1994. Those two albums form part of a period in her career (beginning with Aqaba in 1988) when she expanded her repertoire beyond traditional British and Irish folk music, choosing songs in multiple genres based on the quality of the songwriting. In addition to covering songs by Elvis Costello and Richard Thompson, she brought her remarkable interpretation skills to the works of a wide range of songwriters, including familiar names such as Cole Porter, Charles Mingus, Natalie Merchant and the Gershwin Brothers, and less-familiar but highly talented craftspersons like Bill Caddick, Les Barker and Maggie Holland.
Not caring much for the available but mundane English term to describe those who interpret songs (“song interpreter”), I made up a word that feels more descriptive and accurate: interpretiste, integrating “interpreter” with the French word for artist: artiste. June Tabor is a true interpretiste, not only in her remarkable ability to capture text and subtext of a given song, but in her talent for choosing works that challenge both the singer and the listener. Some of her best interpretations involve songs that present the unpleasant aspects of human life that the typical listener would rather avoid. Because most people consume music designed to make them happy and facilitate their escape from a dreary reality, June Tabor’s work is unlikely to appear on the Top 40 or anywhere in the rotation of a commercial music channel. She is one of those stubborn artists of rare courage who prefers depth to superficiality. And while she has consistently chosen songs that explore the extent of man’s inhumanity to man, she also has a wicked sense of humor and a marked sensitivity to the complex emotions surrounding human love.
Against the Streams is therefore a perfect title for an album by an artist who consistently paddles against the stream.
“Shameless Love” is an exceptionally engaging opening track, one of my favorite songs by anybody, anywhere, anytime. The song was the title track on a 1981 album by Texas singer-songwriter Eric Taylor, and while his excellent lyrics remain in place, the music underwent a complete overhaul. The unremarkable rhythm of the acoustic original was replaced with a superb arrangement by long-time collaborator and pianist Huw Warren that features a palpable syncopated rhythm driven by piano and accordion, punctuated with sharp violin thrusts at the song’s dynamic peak. Taylor’s original also lacked an identifiable melody, rather like early Dylan songs that needed more melodically-oriented artists to flesh out the tune. Here June and Huw fill in the missing pieces of the melodic puzzle to create a tune with delightful movement up and down the scale.
The lyrics spoke volumes to me as a teenager struggling with my nonconventional desires for both boys and girls, and the song still speaks to me today after years of being shamed for my kinky predilections and living (in sin!) with another adult woman. I don’t think there was a specific moment when I turned the corner, but somewhere along the path there came a point where the judgments of others stopped bothering me: I knew in my heart and soul that the love I felt was a pure as pure could get, and I wasn’t going to let anyone interfere with the free expression of such a precious feeling:
Here’s my heart and all that’s in it
Some say roses, and some say thorns
Some say I’m a fool to give it
Crazy as the moon in a midnight storm
I learned that it was crazier not to give all I am and all I had to give.
Taylor’s lyrics suggest that shameless love is achieved after the emotional release of a good cry, and I do remember a lot of good cries during the period when the light was finally dawning—cries of sadness and joy. It takes a lot of energy to repress both emotion and identity, so it follows that the dam will have to break sooner or later. June’s delivery captures the complexity of this transformation, varying from playful to passionate with a tinge of melancholy at the end, all expressed through exceptional command of build dynamics and thoughtful, deliberate phrasing.
We can be thankful that June brought her immense vocal talent to Elvis Costello’s “I Want to Vanish,” for Costello’s version (on All This Useless Beauty, released two years after June’s recording) reveals his limitations as a vocalist in a quite unflattering manner. The melodic line features a great deal of variation, especially noticeable on the near-octave leaps that appear frequently in the song. You can hear Elvis struggling to hit those notes—an effort that also throws off his breathing—but for June it’s a walk in the park. Costello told Lydia Hutchinson of Performing Songwriter that the song was not about Princess Diana as many have assumed, but “a whole story about a backwoods musician who was being pursued by these documentary filmmakers, and all these images that were being put on satellite television were in the lyric of that song.” June’s interpretation, marked by a certain elegance in delivery, does call up images of a trophy wife trapped at a banquet table laden with silver candelabras and surrounded by bores who consider her little more than an addition to the decoration:
Whether in wonder or indecent haste
You arrange the mirrors and the spools
To snare the rare and precious jewels
That were only made of paste
Listeners often choose to interpret songs in their own way, but however you interpret June Tabor’s version of “I Want to Vanish,” the excellence of the vocal performance cannot be denied.
June returns to her folk roots with “False, False” (Roud 8276), though I doubt the original featured a background as refined as Huw Warren’s supporting piano, Mark Emerson’s subtly evocative strings and Mark Lockheart’s subtle but stirring clarinet. What I love here is that while June plays the role of woman rejected for another, her vocal maintains its strength even in the saddest moments, a choice that beautifully complements the song’s narrative flow. The marvelous Peta Webb, who recorded the song on her album The Magpie’s Nest, described the song as one that “moves from tragedy to optimism in three short verses of striking poetic imagery,” and June beautifully captures that whirl of emotions in her delivery. After admitting that fulfillment was a long shot at best (“against the stream I was rowing”), the woman rises from the emotional devastation to express her firm belief that true love is still possible:
But I mean to climb up some higher, higher tree
And harry a white snowflake’s nest,
And down shall I fall, ay, without any fear
To the arms that love me the best.
In one sense, the song bears a striking similarity to “Shameless Love,” in that it is indeed possible to feel two completely opposite emotions at the same time. Ah, the wonder of being human!
We now move on to Richard Thompson’s contribution to crime fiction in the person of that “cold steel woman” known as “Pavanne,” the “beauty as elegant as ice.” This character sketch of a hit woman specializing in political assassinations is remarkably complete, and as is often the case, the seeds of her psychosis were planted in childhood trauma.
And they say she grew up well provided for,
Her mother used to keep her boys for sure.
And father’s close attentions led to talk,
She learned to stab her food with a silver fork.
June maintains the suspense as the story plays out, rendering the tale’s conclusion by opening the final verse in sotto voce to replicate the whispering gossip of the masses who have been following the case in the papers. She then rises to full power as she delivers the shocking truth about this female psychopath:
And they say she didn’t do it for the money,
And they say she didn’t do it for a man.
They say that she did it for the pleasure,
The pleasure of the moment.
Kudos again to Huw Warren for exceptionally sensitive piano support that faithfully tracks June’s emotional narrative.
You will often find at least one song on a June Tabor album that leaves you emotionally devastated, and on Against the Streams that song is “He Fades Away.” Written by the late Alistair Hewitt, Scottish immigrant to the lands down under and confirmed Trotskyite Socialist, the song consists of the reflections of an Australian woman who tends to her husband as he wastes away from lung disease caused by years of toil in the asbestos mines. Hewitt’s original is a decent piece of work, and while his empathy is admirable, the song needed a woman’s voice and sensibility to realize its potential.
The song begins with June’s voice, a voice expressing exhaustion, resignation and infinite sadness. She is soon joined by Andy Cutting on the diatonic accordion, a sound that serves to intensify the unimaginable heartbreak:
There’s a man in my bed I used to love him
His kisses used to take my breath away
There’s a man in my bed I hardly know him
I wipe his face and hold his hand
And watch him as he slowly fades away
He fades away
Not like leaves that fall in autumn
Turning gold against the grey
He fades away
Like the bloodstains on the pillow case
That I wash every day
He fades away
The second verse deals with the complications surrounding compensation, highlighting the cold, impersonal bureaucratic response of the state (“The lawyer says we might get compensation/In the course of due procedure/But he couldn’t say for certain at this stage”). June maintains that tone of resignation throughout the verse, indifferent to the possibility of compensation for reasons to be poignantly clarified in the final verse. The song then moves to the bridge, where we learn her husband is not the only victim of Austrailia’s Wittenoom mines. While Hewitt’s delivery in the original feels polemical and political, no one can express righteous outrage as effectively and genuinely as June Tabor. Her tone and phrasing change noticeably when she mentions the mines, seething with deep-seeded anger and human outrage at the sheer senselessness of the sacrifice:
And he’s not the only one
Who made that trip so many years ago
To work the Wittenoom mines
So many young men old before their time
And dying slow
They fade away
Wheezing bags of bones
Their lungs half clogged and full of clay
He fades away
She returns to that achingly moving tone of resignation in the final verse as she remarks on the absurdity of the compensation that may or may never come, subtly condemning the values of a system founded on the belief that money is an effective palliative for grief:
There’s a man in my bed they never told him
The cost of bringing home his weekly pay
And when the courts decide how much they owe him
How will he spend his money
When he lies in bed and coughs his life away?
The bitter irony of the story is that the Wittenoom Mines did in fact close at the end of 1966, but the closure had nothing to do with the individuals and families whose lives were ruined. No, the firm in question “closed its asbestos mining operations at Wittenoom claiming lack of profitability and falling of asbestos prices.” You can read the timeline of the disaster online, but that cold list of facts won’t come close to matching the impact of June Tabor’s moving performance.
“The Irish Girl” is a mysterious tale of abandoned love from singer-songwriter Peter Bond. Though the “plot” is somewhat surreal, the moral of the story is that a man “Seeking his fortune while the brightest jewel/Was within his reach all the while” is the ultimate fool. It’s a lovely song, marvelously supported by a string arrangement that weaves itself beautifully around the melody. Next comes a brief traditional intermission combining two different fragments, the song title drawing its name from the first (“Apples and Potatoes”) while the second is based on the tune from “God Killed the Devil.” The highlight of the piece is when June shifts to nonsense syllables in a burst of “traditional scat” delighting in the sounds of the did-a-lee-doos rolling off her tongue.
“Beauty and the Beast” is actually a poem by Jane Yolen set to music by the multi-talented Huw Warren, where June abandons singing for straight poetic narrative. We find the curiously matched couple in their golden years, the loping rhythm established by Huw Warren’s piano hinting that they’re taking a stroll about the grounds. The music of the primary theme combines C major during the verses and G minor emphasizing the fifth in the gaps, indicating that all may not be sunshine and roses in Beast Land beneath the superficial trappings. Beauty’s naïve belief in her ability to uncover the prince trapped beneath a beastly façade turns out a crapper, as she describes Beast as “graying around the muzzle.” The ultimate sacrificial lamb then claims she has “No regrets—-None.” At that point, the main musical theme vanishes, the key shifts to a pattern emphasizing half-step dissonance, and in a haltering voice, Beauty (speaking through June) reveals that she does in fact have regrets—that she and Beast were unable to have children.
The woman is a complete fucking idiot.
Dr. Jennifer James famously called bullshit on this fairytale, describing it as one that perpetuates the myth that “you can marry one of those guys and clean him up.” Jane Yolen wrote (among other things) books for children, so given her family-friendly bias, her mild revision of the story is hardly surprising. What I resent about both the original and this update is that both present the woman as weak and submissive, a wimp who accepts the limited choices offered her by society and who can only preserve her status as a good girl by sacrificing her life for the family. I have no problem with women who want children—I have a problem with women who buy into the narrative that they will never achieve full womanhood unless and until they get the production line going. Love the arrangement, love June’s portrayal of the character, loathe both the tale and the moral of the story.
I return to a much happier place when I hear the accordion strains that open “The Turn of the Road,” a touching and beautiful love song adapted from an old Irish tune by prolific writer, poet, satirist and comic Les Barker. The theme centers on the essential truth governing any intimate relationship: anyone can love someone “for better” but the true test lies in the “for worse.”
Will you walk with me
Beyond the road’s turning,
Where Day takes the valley
That leads into Night?
Love will you walk with me
All through my journey
Or only til’ the light?
June’s delivery on this piece is a combination of deliberate and careful enunciation (as if she’s making sure the partner fully understands) and bursts of intense passion around the vital importance of unconditional love. The power of the combination is best demonstrated in her exceptional phrasing, particularly on the couplet “The turn of the road, my love/That’s where I need you” where she extends the melodic line on the first verse to emphasize the intimate phrase, “my love,” then frames THAT’S around microscopic pauses to make the meaning clear. After a long and lovely accordion and string duet, we arrive at the climactic moment where the last two verses are repeated over more assertive supporting music and June sings the lines in a tone revealing complete confidence in the power of unconditional love:
Love, will you hold me
Through all my life’s evenings?
Love, will you take the road
Right to the end?
I never had someone
I could believe in
Forever my lover, my friend.
Oysterband mate Ian Telfer penned “Windy City,” a bitter ode to cities in the northern climes that began dying with predictable frequency following the decline in manufacturing and the loss of empire status. Mark Locklear trades his clarinet for tenor sax, giving this largely piano-driven song a touch of urban grit. The narrator is a youth desperate to escape the dead-end life of a rust belt denizen and relocate to sunnier climes (both literally and economically). The song reaches its emotional peak in the center, where June delivers the bridge, spitting out the words with unrestrained bitterness and bile:
We went to church on Sunday
We wore our Sunday best
We went to work on Monday
The damned just like the blessed
Just like the blessed
Locklear then follows with an equally expressive sax solo that qualifies as a pure knockout moment. It’s followed by a passage of quiet reflection and relief as the narrator arrives at the train station to make his escape. June emphasizes the “never” in the phrase “And I’m never coming back” in various ways—once through hard emphasis, once as settled fact and once by echoing the word gently in the fade, reflecting the relief of escape.
Bill Caddick, a regular contributor to June’s repertoire, earns the album’s closing spot with the gentle and lovely lullaby “Waiting for the Lark.” The spare backing music of gently plucked single string notes reflects the quiet moments of early morning before the sun has risen in pastoral lands where time is not measured by the clock but by the sounds and sights of the natural world. The sound of the lark is the true wake-up call in such a clime, a signal to the farmer that it’s time to till the fields or tend to the trees. It just so happens that I’m reading Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders at present, and there are several scenes in that book that could have been set to Caddick’s wonderful music and June’s gentle voice:
Sleep on child while the birds rest on
And the cow she sleeps in her stall.
Oh the meadow stands grey
In this dew-down moment before the day.
And waits for the lark to call.
And waits for the lark to call.
Though I will always be a city girl, hearing this song and reading Hardy make me yearn for a world that isn’t driven by artificial and arbitrary notions of time but by rhythms more compatible with the human spirit.
Twenty-five years after its release, Against the Streams confirms its status as a timeless work of pure artistry and exceptional courage. Such a description applies in varying degrees to all June Tabor’s work, but the diversity and depth of Against the Streams certainly qualifies it as one of her best. While superficial can be fun, it’s also exhausting in that you have to keep going back for more to scratch whatever itch you have. Listening to deeper, richer music that explores the core of human existence may feel challenging at first, but when it’s delivered by an artist as talented and sensitive as June Tabor, such music leaves you feeling fully engaged, fully alive and more closely connected to your fellow travelers on life’s journey.