Pre-millennial tension. It’s a phrase that occasionally crops up on these pages. The context strictly musical yet the definition decidedly vague – however well-intentioned the point that’s being conveyed.
I mention this because during the research phase of this Significant Albums piece – listening material gleaned exclusively from the year in question; records revisited, reacquainted with, re-evaluated – the very first words I jotted down in my notebook were: 1998 is suffering from pre-millennial tension.
It’s the type of statement designed to appear profound and insightful – when I suspect it’s more of a direct reaction against the sheer magnitude of the 1997 release schedule. I’m fairly confident that we’re not going to see another period as important as ’97, at least in this series of year-by-year appraisals (2010 is our final destination), but we’re certainly still to stumble over entire orchards of vital albums.
None of which makes any pre-millennial angst easier to quantify, you understand. Were you to study a cross-section of any musical landscape, the pronounced patterns – shared themes, cohesive moods – will be voguish and ephemeral at best (at worst: merely tricks of the light). Because humans are disparate creatures. Hang a guitar strap around their bony shoulders (other musical instruments are available), fire up the amplifier, and the ensuing racket will be individual in shape – not communal.
That said, I’ve decided to run with this pre-millennial gut-feeling because it is an expression that fits, I think. It’s not universal – there’s a significant tranche of records to be discussed in part two of this piece that transcend all this gibberish – but there are tendrils of something identifiable, all the same. An uncertainty, perhaps. Unease (not dread), ennui (not alarm); it’s as if that ridiculous Y2K hysteria had slowly infiltrated the tone and timbre of 1998’s release schedule. Never overt or deeply ingrained, yet discernible, should you listen closely.
An exemplifier: Pulp’s This Is Hardcore. An album firmly located after the party has ended; the drugs have worn off, the neon signage has frazzled out and dawn is leaking all over the pavement in gunmetal hues. From the flicker-bug whine of opener ‘The Fear’, this is clever, shadowy stuff, not only a counterpoint to the upbeat pop inflexions of their Britpop-era chart success, but also far more engaging. The vibes are culled from a far wider range of sources than previous releases – there’s a detectable if oh-so-subtle ’70’s thing going on – whilst the lyrics, always enticing thanks to Jarvis Cocker’s witty, nuanced snapshots, are even darker than usual, nudging toward the openly caustic. This adult and occasionally x-rated style of wordplay blends with the rougher-than-usual timbres of these guitar/synth cadences (plus some seductive work with the percussion), so that the whole pulses coyly. The definitive Pulp album. A high water mark.
Pre-millennial tension; that’s the best description I’m going to arrive at with You Guys Kill Me by The Third Eye Foundation. This is esoteric electronica of a most eerie kind – the ideal soundtrack for that three-hour narrow-focus slo-mo footage of a mannequin’s melting face that you’ve been filming. The solo Mark Hollis album is a challenging, end of the century affair that travels even further than late-period Talk Talk toward some jazz-bedecked ambient alienation – one for the hardcore fans, I’d suggest. And then there’s England Made Me, the début album (titled after a Graham Greene novel) from Black Box Recorder, which has both a wonderful cover (see that picture at the top of the words – well, that), and a definite pre-millennial flapping about its person – although as Luke Haines has his clammy paws all over this, it’s all executed with that characteristic edge of subversion. Sounds half-finished, mind, but with Sarah Nixey’s honeycomb vocals layered across the mix, that fact barely matters.
The paragraph concerning itself with Celebrity Skin has had to be rewritten a couple of times; Hole aren’t a band well suited to a few glib sentences tucked away in a review of a year’s records. Too many complexities. Too many issues that we could spend the rest of the evening debating, Courtney Love’s public persona – hooker/waitress, model/actress – a polarising facet. Much of the criticism she attracts is valid; you can at least understand where it’s coming from, even if it’s not a viewpoint you personally subscribe to. Yet there’s also, alas, a misogynistic undertone to some of the ‘anti’ sentiment; that problem society seems to have with confident, brash, outspoken women, whether they’re wearing knickers under their short skirts on-stage or not.
There’s also the provenance issue with any Hole album. Just as predecessor Live Through This had Kurt Cobain’s fingerprints all over it, so Celebrity Skin has Scary Billy Corgan’s (cue gratuitous reference to Adore, the Smashing Pumpkins album in this year. It’s a bit – um – goth. Not sure it works). This outside assistance isn’t necessarily a bad thing (even if the introduction to ‘Hit So Hard’ has exactly the same intro as Corgan’s ‘Love’ from Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness). In fact I’d go further, and suggest that it’s this record’s ingredients that make it special. The slick, post-grunge sound – Scary Bill’s ear for an addictive hook. The punchy opening (the first three tracks in particular arrive like an assault). This polished approach also allows Love’s lyrics to flower; confessional, confrontational, an intensity that’s expertly channelled. A record that draws you in; cue favourable comparisons to other rock albums records released this year; the Queens Of The Stone Age début, perhaps, or the somewhat lacklustreVersion 2.0 by Garbage.
Other LPs of note. Xo by Elliot Smith. Silur by Tarwater. Despite the cynicism and the revisionism that comes with any Madonna record, I have Ray Of Light on the list for some reason – that’ll be the William Orbit production, I’m guessing. I should also include Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk in any ’98-shaped adventure, the posthumous and uncompleted Jeff Buckley record. It’s speaks of a harder, more bevelled sound than Grace, the abrasion elegantly seguing with that voice. It’s also a horribly sad listen; such talent left to flounder too far from the river bank. Sigh.
In part two of 1998’s Significant Albums, I’ll be writing exclusively about records from a small and insignificant nation that occupies the top third of a silly little island moored somewhere in the north Atlantic. In the meantime: theaudience. I have such a crush on this LP. Sure, it’s a contrived and problematic affair (if you’re new to this band I’d recommend reading this article, in which some sad-sack blissed-out music blogger exposes his love for theaudience), but it also has so much going for it. It’s wry expression, eyebrows permanently raised. The teen-aged Sophie Ellis Bextor exudes such the sultry composure, the lyrics (written by a man twice her age) occasionally risqué, her annunciation perfectly complimented by the subversive edge of each song’s arrangement (if only her solo career continued in this vein, instead of the limp dance/pop she’s been peddling ever since). Also: no pre-millennial tension on display – thankfully.
Pulp / This Is Hardcore
The Third Eye Foundation / Lions Writing The Bible, No Dove No Covenant
Black Box Recorder / England Made Me
theaudience / A Pessimist Is Never Disappointed