The Sound - All Fall Down
or 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.
For a time, it must have seemed as though the Sound would conquer the world. Or at least a small portion of it. Signed to Korova Records (of Echo & the Bunnymen fame), the band’s second album, From the Lion’s Mouth, had delighted all and sundry upon release in 1981. Rightly so, as the nervy, paranoid pop, frenetic discharges of hope, and occasional smatterings of gloom merged effortlessly with Adrian Borland’s intelligent words to fashion a magnificent record. Melody Maker’s Steve Sutherland was certainly convinced, and enthused thusly: “While others content themselves posturing, pontificating in some show business vacuum, the Sound stand up and want to know why. You can ill-afford to ignore them again.” The closing sentence a direct reference to Jeopardy, the group’s debut, whose energy and promise From the Lion’s Mouth appeared to have fulfilled. Success was on the horizon.
But something went wrong.
In fact, several somethings went wrong—a veritable catalogue of misfortune and poor timing. Drummer Michael Dudley broke his hand before a crucial gig in support of U2, forcing cancellation. Korova gave the nod to Heaven Up Here leaving From the Lion’s Mouth somewhat in the mire, and the group’s A&R man wandered off to Los Angeles. Pushed onto parent company Warner, the Sound were suddenly no longer on the verge of a breakthrough, but a band who had failed to deliver. Warner’s strategy was to push for a more commercial album and hope the revenue explosion could still be salvaged. Instead, they got All Fall Down.
Whether this record signalled the natural end of the Sound-Warner contract, or resulted in the group being forcibly booted from it, seems to be a matter of debate. In a 1984 interview with Chris Roberts, Borland explained that “We didn't get ‘dropped’—it was much more natural than that. We didn't want to stay with a label that wasn't promoting us 'cos we weren't ‘commercial’ enough.” However, in a recent Q&A session with reissue label Renascent, bassist Graham Bailey is rather more blunt: “That record got us kicked off Warner Brothers ... Oh well!” Regardless of circumstance, the upshot was much the same—All Fall Down left the Sound without a deal.
It also cost them their fans in the press. A scathing review in (of all places) Sounds kicked off with the uncompromising line “This is the album the Sound should never have made” and accused it of being highly derivative. A somewhat curious accusation, as the work is generally regarded as far more experimental and “difficult” than preceding efforts. Nevertheless, this mauling was not atypical.
Retrospective opinions seem mixed, with even Sound-devotees split by their love or hate for the record; though the results of a Renascent “Top 20” poll found two tracks from All Fall Down in the top five—suggesting that those who harbour fondness for the album do so with a certain dedication. This is quite understandable. Despite being dismissed by some as overly bleak, a slump, or simply “the one which got the band ditched by Warner,” there is much to admire and enjoy about an album whose peaks can match anything else released by the group.
Not only does the opener and title-track pick up where the closing From the Lion’s Mouth menace of “New Dark Age” left off, but it also deftly encapsulates what is to follow. A stark, untreated beat is joined by an ominously quiet Borland, acting the hopeless witness as things collapse around him. There is a telling mention of “missed ambition.” But the helpless victim is suddenly the aggressor as the track builds, layers increase, and the main vocal is joined by a backing chant, urging “all fall down / all fall down!”
The darkness appears to be lifted by “Party of the Mind,” which bounds in with the focused, lighter tone of previous releases. Hey it’s about a party, it must be cheerful, right? Despite offering some melodic relief after “All Fall Down” however, the overtones of Adrian Borland’s well-documented familiarity with mental problems give the song a slightly sinister edge. Being invited inside a troubled mind could spell danger for all concerned. It’s perhaps reductionist to assume this piece is about Borland himself though. In tandem with the opening tune, it provides a telling one-two message that points more accurately towards “welcome to the group’s collective emotional state.” As the rhythm becomes increasingly desperate and the track closes with a flourish of twisting, discordant sounds, even the most amateurish detective could deduce that all was not necessarily smooth during the making of this album.
Mindful that the intensity could become overwhelming, there’s a tactful decision to bring some calm to the proceedings with the gorgeous “Monument.” One of the most successful lyrical outings on a record which isn’t exactly short of quality verse, it likens the symbolism of a perpetual landmark with the blossoming of love. The pace is sedate, even mournful at times, but the message is one of pure hope, declaring with genuine belief that “they will never pull you down,” as guitars truly resound over the selective mini-drone of a comforting keyboard. No surprise whatsoever that this track came fourth in the aforementioned fan’s Top 20.
Is what rolls in next a slight dip, or merely struggling to match the standards just set? Hard to be sure, but the automated hand-clap beat which launches “In Suspense” can’t avoid seeming dated now—and may even have felt a touch antiquated at the time, too. Maybe that was the intention. The usual dependable guitar playing picks holes of light through wonderfully deep piano stabs, which resonate with reassuring CLANGS. There’s a rapid change of pace for the chorus, which feels as if it’s trying to accelerate away from the rest of the song but keeps being dragged back. As structural experiments go, it’s not a failure—but equally it never quite finds its stride.
Fortunately, the perfect pick-me-up is mere seconds away. “Where the Love Is” (the other one to sneak into the fan’s Top 20) at first hides its intentions well, behind a bizarrely tuned intro riff which restrains itself from melting into dissonance. A persistent, though not overbearing, beat joins with intent. Scatterings of piano can be heard, twinkling above. From this modest base, Borland’s yearning desire to take an unnamed party to “that secret place / where the love is” grabs the track and doesn’t let go, holding it in a moment of absolute desire. But it’s even more vital than that because, as if referring back to the wasteland aftermath of “All Fall Down,” it feels that this devotion is simply all that’s left: “the only cause / that is worth me fighting for.” It’s an almighty love song, transcending the usual celebrations of individual intimacy and holding aloft the banner for the concept of passion on a grand scale—and a magnificent album centrepiece.
Much like a confident cricket side, the middle order stays strong as “Song and Dance” and “Calling the New Tune” build upon “Where the Love Is” with an impressive partnership. “Song and Dance” opens with a classically-tinged piano piece accompanied by the percussion equivalent of bubbles sinking down a glass, before bursting into ... well, a song and dance, really. Further obfuscation occurs with a series of less than tuneful screeches, and another arrangement shift sees layered vocals lingering over echoing drums. But just as hope dwindles, a clean guitar rises from the mix with the increasingly reasserted belief that “I’ll make a song and dance / for the things that I want,” setting up a blistering finish. Barely a pause before “Calling the New Tune” saunters by, with nagging chimes and another typically Borland-esque lyric about change, progression, and improvement—demanding a response from ... who? Anyone who will listen.
It can’t last. “Red Paint” offers a guitar tone which is a shade too similar to the one used on “Where the Love Is” for comfort and betraysthe first signs that the band may be lacking in inspiration. A vaguely spirited chorus tries to lift the doldrums, but the truth is that a serious re-write would be needed to elevate this above filler status. Handily, at just over three minutes, it’s finished before disillusionment can properly set in.
Even better, what follows is so huge that it blows away any lingering disappointments. “Glass and Smoke” is one track which entirely justifies the “ooh, it’s a bit of a difficult album” remarks. Lengthy, meandering, and filled with squeals, ear-tingling feedback, and barely even a sniff of a melody, it is, nonetheless, a delight from start to finish. A mechanical drum pounds industriously throughout, as a diverse swirl of noises come and go like branches pounding against a window in a gale; all the while competing with Borland’s barked yells of self-loathing and general confusion about this world of danger and contradiction. Not an easy listen, but a rewarding one.
Which leaves “We Could Go Far” the task of winding down after the cyclone. A task it would be able to pursue with greater success, had the record company not insisted on tinkering, as Graham Bailey explained: “Perhaps one day the original final cut will be released, without the (unnecessarily loud) pounding bass drum that was added by order of the record company.” As a closing piece it still works relatively well, but there’s a real sense of what might have been, had the drifting synths and sparse, yet ornate guitar work been allowed to shine in peace.
For an album so steeped in troubles, All Fall Down holds up splendidly. Eschewing whatever family-friendly direction Warner were attempting to push (which really made precious little sense, as the group were hardly pop darlings in waiting) and dabbling in an unorthodox structure or two, the experiments rarely wander too far away from the core of a solid tune. It can be called derivative only in the sense that it is instantly identifiable as the Sound, but although the basic formula found on From the Lion’s Mouth isn’t built upon as such, it is stretched in different, interesting directions. Those who find the record too bleak are either ignoring the group’s general demeanour, or somehow missing the optimistic, uplifting nature of tracks like “Where the Love Is.” Somewhat ironically, the next Sound full-length (Heads and Hearts) would adopt a slightly more accessible feel, yet breakthrough success would still elude them. For a listener, that doesn’t especially matter. What counts is the body of exceptionally strong work that the band left in their wake, and, on some days at least, All Fall Down can make a realistic claim to being their best.
Brittle Heaven - The Official Adrian Borland Website