Soundchecks Music Reviews
review by Jim Steel
The theory goes something like this: Dave Formula is not a man in a hurry. The keyboard genius had first surfaced in St Louis Junction, a beat group that released a few singles in the mid-1960s, and even appeared on Top Of The Pops. After playing around in cabaret bands he resurfaced with Magazine in 1978 when they were looking for a replacement keyboard-player. Other things occurred. Eventually, he got around to recording his debut solo album, the jazz-soaked Satellite Sweetheart, which took a couple of years, and he finally released it in 2010.
Now, how best to promote it? A few gigs around Manchester? A low-key tour of some of the smaller venues in a couple of the larger British cities, maybe..? Okay, how about reforming Magazine - one of the finest bands ever - and touring them instead? That'll certainly some draw attention. And, after all, a great many members of Magazine appear on the album. There are even fragments of the studio ghost of the late John McGeoch. At the very least we will all be eternally grateful that he didn't reform Visage.
The theory is, of course, wrong. Magazine had been talking about reforming as far back as the middle of the 2000s, but Howard Devoto didn't want to leave his job. He'd given up on a full-time musical career by 1990 when Luxuria had failed to sell any records and he had been working in a photographic library ever since then. It conjures up a vision of Howard as the Timothy Spall character in Stephen Poliakoff's Shooting The Past. Eventually, though, the job left Howard. Times are hard. The biggest problem was what to do about the missing McGeoch. The solution was obvious and elegant. Noko, the other half of Luxuria, is a superb guitarist and he was already familiar with much of the material. The tour, as history now documents, was glorious.
What next? Some new material..? And risk pissing all over their heritage? Some would say that they had already done this with their last album, the much-maligned Murder, Magic And The Weather, which sorely missed McGeoch's input. In retrospect, though, that album is packed with intricate delights. The versions featured in the '(Maybe It's Right To Be Nervous Now)' boxset, not to mention the exhilarating run-throughs that some of the songs received in 2009 (they'd split before they had a chance to tour it first time around), suggest that, just possibly, it used the wrong mixes. But this is a band that is not afraid of ambition. Fear, indeed, is one of Devoto's themes and he's examined its pliable shape from different angles over the years.
But first; another problem... Barry Adamson's bass was the one instrumental constant up until now but after a career of creating soundtracks for imaginary (and actual) films he decided to go all the way and direct a real film. Therapist certainly looks like a worthwhile endeavour but it has had the effect of knocking Adamson out of Magazine. He's been replaced by Jon 'Stan' White from Groove Armada who had also worked with Formula on Satellite Sweetheart. White has the good grace to occupy the same sonic area as Adamson and while there are occasions where he might not seem as smooth, there are plenty more times where he fits correctly. Noko, we already know about. He replicated McGeoch's guitars and effects for 2009 and sounded miraculously identical. Sometimes he does this on No Thyself and sometimes he's Noko. Before purists complain, it's probably worth pointing out that, of their five albums, only two were recorded with the same line-up. Devoto is, in fact, the only survivor from Shot By Both Sides, and even he'd left the band, briefly, once upon a time.
And finally, to the album itself... It's a guitar-driven affair, mostly, resembling Real Life and The Correct Use Of Soap rather more than the north European synth-land of Secondhand Daylight or the WTF?-ness of Murder, Magic And The Weather. But that's just a rough description; every Magazine album takes a step to the left of its predecessor.
The opener, Do The Meaning, is officially co-written by Pete Shelley, Devoto's old friend and collaborator from the Buzzcocks, though it seems that Devoto merely quotes something that Shelley said recently and the credit is as much a sign of generosity as anything else. The song starts with a statement of intent from Howard and then Noko's guitar douses us with flanger. The lyrics refer to the fact that art acquires a life of its own once it has been created. The song certainly behaves like Magazine, even with what sounds like a string quartet joining in. Not the strongest piece on the album but with those lyrics it either had to be the opener or closer.
The next track is Other Thematic Material (the bloody-mindedness of the titles is a delight all in itself). The main theme of this album is age and impending death. But, remember that Devoto also wrote Orgasm Addict for the Buzzcocks. If that song was about teenage sexual obsession then this one could be about the same character in middle age. Chunks of banal pornography are intertwined with suburban ennui to create a picture of a zombified relationship. Darkly hilarious - and thoughtfully sequenced second in the album so that one can skip over it when the in-laws come round for a visit. All the same, it takes a few plays to punch through the lyrics and appreciate it as a piece of music.
The Worst Of Progress..., about the nihilistic inevitability of death, is followed by Hello Mister Curtis (with apologies) which is about suicide. It is pretty droll, though, so there's no need to despair just yet. Devoto takes Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain to task, and he even uses the 'My Generation' quip that he was dropping into Shot By Both Sides in 2009. The printed lyrics are useful when it comes to deciding the difference between 'your' and 'you're', incidentally; both are used to describe the agony. Noko is on stunning form here and his Gibson even throws out a few Sex Pistols/ New York Dolls curls; another two bands that haven't been short on stupid deaths either, when it comes down to it. This, by the way, is the lead single; released on contrarian 10-inch vinyl.
Physics is an ode to atheism masquerading as a gentle ballad and feels very similar to Devoto's guest spot on Dave Formula's album. It's also one of several tracks that feature Rosalie Cunningham from Ipso Facto (their 2009 support act) on backing vocals, filling the role that Laura Teresa had in the band's first incarnation. Happening In English sounds like it came off The Correct Use Of Soap and lyrically defies complete interpretation although it does seem to involve cinema. The absent Adamson is brought to mind, and not just through White's excellent handling of his part.
Holy Dotage is a standout rocker; one of the best songs that Magazine have ever done. That familiar ascending guitar is merely a small part of a perfectly-integrated whole; Magazine can sound like Magazine without ever coming close to pastiching themselves. They're much too clever for that. Of Course Howard (1979) is a match for anything on that year's Secondhand Daylight album. Dreamy keyboards will put the listener into a psychedelic place while Howard quotes from his own introduction to his book of lyrics that was also released that year. He's amused by the arrogance of youth. It's possibly the most beautiful thing you'll hear this year and is quite unique. It drifts into Final Analysis Waltz which keeps the mood but switches the focus to the rest of us as seen from where Howard stands these days.
The Burden Of A Song starts out with the drum and throbbing bass intro of The Light Pours Out Of Me - one of the original incarnation's finest songs - before swiftly turning away. White's bass starts to do things that Adamson's never did while John Doyle's precise drumming powers the song along. The angst builds, and it twists at the heart that's trying to dance to the beat. This is what Magazine do, and have always done - music for the troubled soul.
There's an extra track, Blisterpack Blues, available to those who buy the album directly from the band (and which is also available on the single). It's the track that comes closest to the jazz-funk of Satellite Sweetheart or the obvious sly suspects from The Correct Use Of Soap. These days we take drugs to feel normal. Make no mistake; this is a great album. Like all of their albums, there are some songs which instantly grab you for life and others which have to be unwrapped over time. It just keeps getting better the more you play it. Magazine fans will love it, and it is already an album that you can recommend to newcomers curious to explore the legend for the first time. Now, how often does that happen?
for PIGASUS Press