Jerky Versions of the Dream
1983; r: 2007
he term “genius” is thrown around all too regularly. By now it’s been casually bounced off so many undeserving targets that the meaning is battered and deflated beyond almost all recognition. I’m not sure whether Howard Devoto is or ever was an actual, proper genius. He is, however, always an excellent listen. Like the flourishes of a masterfully constructed sketch show, Devoto is able to ensnare the attentive with a series of asides and unusual twists of direction—the equivalent of a performer who knowingly strays from the studio confines, or dabbles in self-referential material. He’s also perfectly happy to break the fourth wall (fourth ear?) with natural witticisms should the occasion permit it. Or perhaps just for a lark.
Disappointingly few vocalists would embark on a lyrical endeavour with the conversational throwaway “Sing me a song about ... civil liability. OK!” let alone make it work—but with Devoto it seems curiously seamless, as if the track (“Waiting for a Train”) couldn’t rest easy without it. Like several other cuts from this oft-overlooked solo effort, “Waiting for a Train” appears to take the swinging middle eight from The Correct Use of Soap staple “I’m a Party” as its inspiration. Gone are the ice-spitting synths of Magazine’s Secondhand Daylight—replaced in part by jaunty tempos, jazz club piano, and a smattering of funky horn action. Where once Devoto would intone worryingly about “trying to relax,” here it can be taken literally, as an effort to chill out before chugging off to meet a new romance.
Worry not, enemies of contentment. The fog of bleakness may have lifted to a degree, but Howard is still wrestling with the restrictive chill of his own mind (“Cold Imagination”) and plotting a devilish celestial takeover (“Taking Over Heaven”). Most crucially, he can’t escape his own voice (nor, I suspect, would he wish to). As with so much about the man, his vocals seem to be playing a variety of distinct roles. At times it could be aping Richard O’Brien’s characterisation of Riff Raff—a sort of sardonic, back of the throat leer. Other moments approach a seductive croon, though one with more than a hint of menacing unpleasantness; and wherever these ragged, birdlike exhalations swoop and climb there’s little doubt that a small woodland animal might be pecked to death at the end of it. Maintaining the illusion of drama is paramount—regardless of whether this requires a curious affectation or somewhat over-exaggerated proclamations.
A smooth musical transition from prior recordings is ensured by ... err ... a bunch of ex-Magazine types showing up to help out. The familiar noodlings of keyboardist Dave Formula can definitely be heard, though the thermostat has generally been upped a notch or two. Also featuring from time to time are a variety of cohort voices, including backing vocals from a returning Laura Teresa. Even Barry Adamson drops by to contribute a couple of nifty basslines. The rest of this ensemble do a fine job of slotting into the required vibes; resulting in a sort of Magazine Version 1.5, meshing the post-punk freneticism with a new-found, carefree skip in the step. Able to pile on the intensity when Devoto requires it or hold off for one of his warped half-ballads, the accompaniment is largely faultless—managing to retain a consistent tone despite the rotating personnel.
Bonus-wise, there are a handful of predictably marvelous BBC Sessions, the inclusion of both 7” and instrumental versions of the perkily equatorial “Rainy Season” and a 12” mix of “Cold Imagination.” Great though these extras are, it was a bizarre sequencing decision to leave differing versions of the same songs side-by-side. There’s enough material to safely split them up and provide a touch of breathing space, so why not do it?
This minor complaint is not just eclipsed by its positive counterparts, however, it is eclipsed, knocked out of orbit, and sent spinning off into a black hole like an intergalactic snooker ball. That this reissue exists at all is something of a treat. Having been scheduled, unscheduled, and finally re-scheduled again by Virgin, it seemed at one point that the project may just be shelved. Perhaps (hopefully) they were coaxed into reviving it after relative sales success with their Magazine re-releases. Whatever the reason, having the album available again is undeniably splendid, because it’s as vital and fascinating as anything else Howard Devoto has been connected with.
Yeah, alright, except Buzzkunst. Nobody’s perfect.