On Second Thought
Terence Trent D’Arby - Symphony Or Damn






for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

Next time you scour the bargain bins and spot multiple copies of Terence Trent D’Arby’s Symphony or Damn, please buy one. You might know D’Arby from Classic VH-1, which plays his biggest American hit, the number-one “Wishing Well” quite a bit. If your hometown’s got a decent ‘80s station, you’ve probably heard the follow-up, “Sign Your Name,” a delirious ballad set to a Casio bossa nova beat. If you’re old enough, you remember those wonderful interviews in which D’Arby claimed his debut album Introducing The Hardline… was better than Sgt. Pepper, pissing off a number of grizzled ex-hippies who’d participated in that year’s necrophiliac Beatles revival. His follow-up, Neither Fish Nor Flesh (1989), flopped big-time (a copy is no doubt right behind Symphony Or Damn), and much of what made him unbearable dovetailed with the public’s inability to handle more than one polymorphously perverse black polymath at the same time, even though Flesh’s best tracks suggest the anything-goes ethos of Sign ‘O’ The Times-era Prince better than, say, the Batman soundtrack does.

Ah, polymorphous perversity. A by-product of romanticism (with a small R), it manifests itself in an artist’s insensate compulsion to try everything at once, unafraid to look ridiculous, which he often will. Confession: I have a weakness for romantic melodrama. The more lurid the better. I want my love songs sticky as hips and licky as trips. Roy Orbison, Roxy Music, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and, of course, Prince have bequeathed to us penthouse perfection, smeared make up, strawberry and ham, toreador pants, Dennis Hopper, and leopard skin. Memorialized in purple prose, photographed in Cinemascope. D’Arby, a proud member of this lineage, came within a hair’s breath of joining these Olympians (this is a man who titled an album T.T. D’Arby’s Vibrator) until—until what exactly? No one knows. Last we heard he almost replaced the late Michael Hutchence in INXS, a move which, upon closer inspection, honors D’Arby’s weirdo aspirations as much as opening Symphony Or Damn with a chorus of overdubbed Brother Terences in a Gregorian chant. Risible? Yes. Yum.

Symphony Or Damn is quite simply the most underrated pop album of the last fifteen years, and it should have done for D’Arby what Sign ‘O’ The Times didn’t do for Prince at the mass culture level: remind us what a frigging genius its creator was. D’Arby, again like Prince, molds a double album’s virtues (space, range,) around a single album’s advantages (clarity, concision). In recapitulation you refine. Symphony Or Damn’s staggering ambition is also D’Arby’s Achilles heel, but like any true-blue romantic he rolls up his pant leg and shows you where to stick the arrow.

Besides his multi-instrumental talents D’Arby flaunts a vocal prowess so complete that he can get away with all his pomo come-ons (imagine Smokey’s high range sullied by Sam Cooke’s grit). No doubt aware that the arrival of one Lenny Kravitz showed the world you can play guitar and wear dreadlocks and natty clothing at the same time, D’Arby takes the pretender into the ring and knocks him out in the first round (“She Kissed Me,” a cocktease as fierce as the giganto-riff which underpins it) before the referees call timeout in the third (“Wet Your Lips”). In “Penelope Please,” a song the likes of which I’ve never heard before, D’Arby tries to convince a girl to fuck him by promising to take her home before Chrissie Hynde makes her appearance on Top of the Pops; his failure is no pox on a melody and hook that evokes that tired compliment “Beatlesque” more convincingly than XTC. Elsewhere D’Arby slow dances with Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (“Delicate”), strums his guitar with Alex Chilton (“Let Me Love You”), and ends up in a threesome with Emerson and Whitman (“Turn The Page”).

But it’s “Let Her Down Easy” which shocks the hell out of us. With apologies to Chuck Berry, R. Kelly, and Benny Mardones, this is quite simply the greatest song ever written about a man seducing an underaged girl. In most cases the author wants us to congratulate him on his audacity; their lyrical wit and choice of chords charm us into forgetting that the guy’s a preening asshole. I don’t know how a solipsist as giddy as D’Arby gets away with showing “the worried daddy’s girl” the generosity she deserves after titling one of the album’s more loutish songs “Succumb To Me,” but he does. The thumping menace of the minor chords D’Arby extracts from his piano complement a falsetto as sweet and rich as the girl’s “butterscotch glow.” The chorus is as direct as a mantra:
Let her down easy
Her heart is on a dime
Let her down easy
And you’ll grow up in time
Exuding a “Maggie May”-esque air of wounded pride, the coda to “Let Her Down Easy” accomplishes a neat personality transference: D’Arby becomes the girl, at once the deflowered and the seducer, and he accomplishes this with nothing more than that supple voice. In this brief moment of empathy the pain of narrator and subject becomes unbearable, mirror upon mirror reflected, a quandary as chilling as Prince’s in “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” Quite a parlor trick, that. But this is a symphony, damn it. Welcome to the monasteryo.


By: Alfred Soto
Published on: 2005-08-16
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