much wiser man than me once said that “singing isn’t about hitting notes; it’s about pulling strings.” On both sides of the Atlantic right now we seem beset with ‘vocalists’ rather than singers, practitioners of a precise science, physicists of the larynx, where the held note and the octave-range are Holy Grails and where personality and character are shied. Mariah Carey, high priestess of vocalists, finally demonstrates a degree of personality by coming dangerously close to an emotional breakdown, and her career freefalls, an album flops, and her malaise deepens. As soon as she sheds the vestiges of real, panicked, terrifying emotion and re-embraces the precision-engineering of her particular brand of commercial nu-soul dance-pop balladry, she is accepted into the welcoming bosom once again, where the hyper real falsification and spectacle of emotion is craved, but the dirty, unpredictable business of reality is shunned.
In the UK, we have this year been force-fed a continual diet of televisual-gauntlet-running vocalists who are forced to sing for their survival in front of an audience baying for success and the Xeroxed semblance of safe emotion, muppets who can hold a note and occasionally span an octave but whose real range extends fully from fake to false. Entertainers. Real emotion, actual feeling, is a scary, frightening prospect, because it might summon in us great feelings, terrific sensations and overwhelming passions that demand of us responsibility, maturity, intelligence, control, astuteness and commitment – things that most of us are both unwilling and unable to supply.
But enough about emotion and hyper reality, I’m here to talk about singers. Gareth Gates ran through an Elvis medley at the British Royal Variety Performance last week, trying his hardest, bless him, throwing shapes and trying to carry songs that, in actual fact, carried him and his weak, insipid larynx so obviously that the fear was apparent in his eyes to anyone looking closely enough. Chris Martin, fat lad from Starsailor, Fran Healy, through to Robbie Williams, Will Young, Charlotte Church, a peculiarly British list of vocalists but you could add any number of Americans, Australians, products of any Western capitalist culture industry system, all are vocalists before being singers and entertainers before being performers, all work resolutely and comfortably within the realm of modern expectations and allowances. They are not allowed to sing and to perform and be successful on the meta-scale of 21st century achievement at the same time. The real purpose and essence of performance is emotion, to convey emotion, whether through open expression of actual subjective inner feelings or through method immersion, artistic and stylist remove. Often the two are closely linked (always, should we view the world as non-dualistic, which I’m favouring more and more) and difficult to distinguish. Cobain’s animalistic holler or Buckley’s looping vocal arc, Tricky’s asthmatic growl or Morrissey’s mannered anguish, would I state the former in each duality as subjective catharsis and the latter as stylised method? Possibly, but the end result is the same; the conveyance of emotion through performance. It is the antithesis of the production of the semblance of emotion through entertainment, which is where the line is drawn between those who are vocalists who entertain and those who are singers who perform, those possessed of character and artistic awareness be it studied or innate, from Louis Armstrong to Nina Simone to Tim Buckley to Kate Bush to Mark Hollis to Bjork. Singers who use their voices as instruments, who realise the potential scope and range of the voice, who imbue it with character whether by necessity or by choice, from the wild to the mannered.
Beth Gibbons is a singer and performer. Out Of Season is a collaboration with Paul Webb of Talk Talk and it showcases her remarkable, expressive, stylised voice over a backing of Webb’s near sublime arrangements. The joint compositions presented are mature, elegant and sophisticated, achieving a level of accomplished and timeless beauty of which other more ambitious and less subtle artists would be proud. Freed from the technological (post)modernism of Portishead, Gibbons is able to ally her understated-yet-dramatic torch songs with a warmer and more organic instrumentation which favours her sometimes uncomfortable and intentionally abrasive vocal swoops in a way we have not heard before. Because Beth’s voice is an instrument and it is used to express in a way that goes beyond the usual, its timbres and nuances explored and exploited in the way that Davis explored the trumpet or Hendrix explored the guitar. From a delicate, gossamer whisper to a wounded, age-old cackle, each studied twist is purposeful and measured, designed to evoke and emote in a way that the likes of Mariah Carey and Fran Healy could never comprehend let alone accomplish. Out Of Season is both a remarkable record of beautiful music, and an outstanding, awe-inspiring performance inducing near-irresistible feelings and sensations. This album is a sublime example of the art of the singer, and of the art of music.