Saturday, 5 June 2010

16. Quiet Life - Japan

Purchased : December 1982

Tracks : Quiet Life / Fall In Love With Me / Despair / In Vogue / Halloween / All Tomorrow's Parties / Alien / The Other Side Of Life

This was a bit of a peevish purchase. I went into Manchester with my Christmas money to find that all the discounting on current LPs in HMV and Virgin seemed to have disappeared so I was left with a restricted choice of older albums at mid-price under the "Fame" imprint (I never quite got the concept there ; never watched the series either).

This album was something of a turning point in the band's career. The third of five albums it saw them move away from an uncomfortable glam / new wave hybrid sound to what would soon be termed New Romantic pop. Similarly singer David Sylvian dropped the sneery whine for a lower register baritone. It also spawned their first hit single in the title track, albeit on re-release 18 months later after they'd left the label.

That title track which kicks off the album in its long version remains a masterpiece. It recognises the necessity of moving on though sung from the point of view of someone who's trapped in the past -"as you turn to leave never looking back will you think of me ". This had extraordinary personal resonance at the time particularly as it was re-released just before my enforced quiet life was beginning. It begins with the haunting keyboard refrain rising in volume from a bed of Giorgio Moroder electronics before Steve Jansen's drumming, Mick Karn's sinuous bass and Rob Dean's sparse guitar set up Sylvian's entrance with the pleading "Boys". Richard Barbieri's swooping keyboards lead into the chorus and Jansen's ferocious drumming leads us out again. After the initial chorus Dean throws in a fabulous mournful guitar solo that's over too soon. Sylvian poses the question "could it ever stop ?" and the music reduces to just Jansen and the synthesisers while Sylvian wails before gradually rising again to another chorus where Karn throws in some urgent saxophone to underline the desperation.

"Fall In Love With Me" is a throwback to their previous glam sound with Jansen's pounding drums driving the song in a similar manner to XTC's "Life Begins At The Top" and Dean's wailing guitar posing the questions. The opaque lyrics could be about a defector from the east wanting a welcome in the west after "pioneering underground". Jansen switches to cymbals for the pleading chorus with Barbieri contributing questioning chords in the background. There's a brief quiet respite before Dean overlays his own work with an icy solo. There's no resolution here, the last line "each bitter moment lingers on" reflected in the restless drive of the music as it fades out.

"Despair" sees a complete volte-face in the music with Jansen and Dean dropping out altogether. A drum machine leads into a slow Eric Satie piano figure accompanied by cello. A minute in and Karn joins in on saxophone. A further minute later and Sylvian, accompanied by Barbieri's echoey chords, comes in black and low with a verse in French which roughly translates as "the artists of tomorrow live in agreeable despair" capturing the allure of the melancholy muse. After his intervention the saxophone takes over again before handing over to Barbieri's mellotron for a move into Gothic territory before reducing to a single repeating piano chord and then the drum machine alone. Detractors of the band would cry "pretentious" but it's powerful stuff.

Side One closes with "In Vogue" a post-coital song with echoes of the contemporary "It's Different For Girls" in Sylvian's doubts that the girl shares his deeper feelings - "I am assured she won't forget". Barbieri's keyboard swirls and Karn's prowling bass evoke dislocation and doubt before rising to the payoff line with Karn's sax accompanying Sylvian's desperate plea that "love's in vogue again" a knowingly flimsy mask for his true feelings. By the second verse he is defeated coming up with the self-deceptive excuse "she's clearly not herself today" before finally admitting "How bitter the morning feels". There's then a lenghty instrumental coda dominated at first by Dean's cold fuzz guitar and concluding with an extended bass chord on the piano, an unarguable conclusion to the affair.

"Halloween" owes a fair bit to Mr Bowie with its Berlin setting but this time we're in the Eastern half of the city with a defeated couple "detatched and broken". Perhaps they were ardent Nazis now living with the consequences of their choices, a ruined house and life behind the Wall , a permanent halloween. Barbieri's doomy chords are a back cloth to a foreground of restless white funk with ragged guitar and Karn's queasy stop-start bass line.

Speaking of Berlin, up next is a song written by another of its serenaders. Theirs is a more sinuous less declamatory take on "All Tomorrow's Parties" than the Velvets' original with Jansen's scattershot playing replacing Moe Tucker's monotonous thump. Dean is given more scope here than on the rest of the album and he contributes both silky lines and fuzztone wailing as the chorus reaches its climax.Sylvian's vocal is cool and detatched throughout leaving the guitar and sax to sound out the warnings that were inherent in Nico's vocal.

Two very strong songs close out the album. "Alien" enthrals from the beginning with Karn's feline fretless bass prompts answered by a rhythm guitar figure before they are replaced by guitar and sax respectively leaving Karn free to get a funky groove going.
The song has opaque references to "nightporters" and "deserts" but the central bleak vision of a deferred romance not delivering the goods, a denial of Jane Eyre if you like, is pretty clear in the devastating chorus where Jansen's fills magnify his brother's turmoil. Dean's guitar solo is good but a little too similar to the one in "Quiet Life" and there's a good production touch on the third verse where Sylvian sings "A voice on the stairs disturbs me" as a distant echo before the rest of the band come back in.

"The Other Side of Life" wrongfoots you as Sylvian starts singing after the first piano chord. It's a wintry song about a relationship decayed to the point of occasional visits from a girl who's found that other side. It starts as a piano ballad but Jansen comes in halfway through the verse and Dean puts down a spiky guitar line at its close. Then strings appear for the mournful chorus and Karn starts prowling just before the false ending. Jansen kicks off the second shorter and bleaker verse where Sylvian is reduced to pleading with the girl for just a wave. One more chorus and that's Sylvian's part done the band telling the rest of the story with the aid of strings and oboe adding different colours to the same basic piano part, "these single occasions" all coming back to the unpalatable truth.

Another one that I should have revisited more often.

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