he Italian Golden Europa Best Newcomer Award was one of many prizes and palms bestowed upon Edwyn Collins for his 1995 global smash “A Girl Like You.” Sure, it’s an easy joke (at the time, Collins was approaching 20 years in the music industry), but the honor does serve as a viable example of just how untasted much of Collins’ canon is.
I once had a friend say to me, “Orange Juice fans must really loathe ‘A Girl Like You’”—a statement I couldn’t have disagreed with more. Folks unfamiliar with Collins heard the couplet, “You’ve made me acknowledge the devil in me / I hope to God I’m talkin’ metaphorically,” and had to think, “Good golly, there’s no way a man who penned that could only have one hit.” So part of me adores “A Girl Like You” for the purpose it serves: as a brilliant “in” for the uninitiated. (The other part of me loves it because it’s a fucking ace song.)
Two events in 2005 helped lift the shroud of obscurity that’s long covered Collins’ career, bringing in new devotees swifter than “A Girl Like You’s” inclusion on an infinity of MOR radio station playlists: 1) the release of The Glasgow School, a compilation culled from Orange Juice’s Postcard nonage, and 2) Collins nearly dying from two brain hemorrhages and then later, a bout with the infection MRSA. Tragedy’s a rather sadistic bitch, generating heaps of attention for those artists who’ve gone without, so while Collins lie in a hospital bed, the feting of his music commenced. Genius, schoolboy pop, they raved. Eclectic in every sense of the word: influenced by Northern Soul, country, Byrds-tinged folk, disco. Music from the punk era that made you want to toss your hat in the air, not gob a guitarist.
What few fans—new, old, or otherwise—were privy to was that at the time, Collins’ sixth album (and first since 2002’s Doctor Syntax) was already in the queue. Home Again just lacked the final mixing and mastering, which Collins and longtime engineer partner Seb Lewsley finally did this year—even though Collins was still struggling with his speech and paralysis in his right hand (which makes strumming his treasured 1949 Gibson acoustic impossible).
The easy interpretation, of course, is that Home Again is an overt reference to Collins’ return from illness and hospital to Kilburn in North London. In fact, the title was being considered long before Scotland’s greatest songwriter fell sick. Home Again is a hat-tip to the past, Collins offering warm, welcome-back embraces for all the genres he clutched on previous efforts. “You’ll Never Know (My Love)” brushes up against the white-boys-do-funk of Orange Juice’s biggest hit, “Rip It Up,” while “Then I Cried” alludes to those spunky Postcard singles, a West Coast rock paste-up fueled by a driving beat and flecks of organ.
Much is made of Collins’ gift for the written word, his grandiloquent verse running the gamut from harrowing self-deprecation to smilingly droll. But what also made his Orange Juice output so emotionally gripping was the music itself. The thwarted attempts to impress the fairer sex (that’s what you get for wearing your fringe like Roger McGuinn) turned listeners apple-cheeked, but so did the band’s bleeding, jittery, nervous-melodies-from-nervous-hands approach. “One Is a Lonely Number” mines similar territory. Its lyrics are as an eerie harbinger (“And if life breaks your heart / You needn’t fall apart / ‘Cos you still got your mind / Which will serve you in kind”), but equally emotive is the song’s dub bass and plucked country banjo. It’s “Consolation Prize,” updated for more fractured days.
Collins continued his role as wry observer throughout his solo career, but his slant did become a tad acerbic. It wasn’t so much a desire to season a rather geeky disposition (this is a guy who sold his stamp collection to buy his first guitar and amp, after all), but more a reaction to being repeatedly dicked around by a fickle music industry. Collins continues his campaign for real rock with “Superstar Talking Blues,” a sardonic take on pop star shills that offers the following couplet: “Now it’s hello Motorola / And good-bye rock ‘n’ rollers.” “Liberteenage Rag” is equally salty—one can’t help but wonder if the title is an allusion to a certain lanky, London sleepwalker frequently in the tabloids.
The best moments on Home Again, however, are when Collins peels away the layers to his songs, employing simple, folk textures, preferring mood over pace. “A Heavy Sigh” is such a number, Collins’ ode to his adopted home of London. But the real pleaser is the title track, which ranks as one of the most autobiographical numbers the Scotsman has ever recorded. As tender as anything in the Orange Juice oeuvre (“Louise Louise” comes to mind), “Home Again” details Collins’ adolescent conversion to bona fide popsmith: “When I was a boy / Well, I heard somebody singing / And I heard the guitars ringing / And it brought me home again.”
Music was his unholy salvation, he tells us. Fitting, really. I hear the breathless opening bars to “Blue Boy,” a frisson of pleasure darts through me, and I think, “This...this is my unholy salvation.” Mr. Collins, it’s grand to have you back. May another Best Newcomer Award be in your future.