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Thursday, 19 April 2007

Review: We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank

The year 2007 presents several satisfying options for anniversaries. 25 years since The Smiths were formed (1982) or, more gloomily, 20 since they broke up (1987). The Smiths, in the opinion of Eyewear, are one of the two most significant British bands of the last quarter century or so (the other is Joy Division, whose uncanny dark sublimity is inexplicable in a popular, albeit alternative, music context). Radiohead, Oasis, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys - whatever - they ain't The Beatles, they ain't The Smiths. Strangeways, Here We Come, their fourth and final studio album, charted in the US of A at #55.

So it comes as something of a welcome surprise that, recently, one half of the duo that defined Smithean genius, Johnny Marr, joined an alternative American band, Modest Mouse (pictured) - and then went on to have, with his new group, the US #1 album.

Is this album, We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, worthy of such heights? Is it a curiosity, coasting on Marr's reputation? Yes and no. Marr is not a household name in America, and so his reputation could not, alone, have propelled the group to such success - and besides, they have done well previously. It just happens to be a great album.

Great, but spiky. I have been listening for several weeks, trying to get in to the heart of a mood, a safe zone, where I can reside in the music and enjoy. Only five songs on the album fully (fathomed) afford such comfort, such melody. They are, may I add, the best songs, and the ones where Marr is most influential: "Dashboard", "Fire It Up", "Florida", "Parting of the Sensory" and "Missed The Boat". There are nine other songs, which are variously either just good, or merely okay. One or two are even grating.

Indeed, the way Modest Mouse can best be described is a cheese, grating. What makes this eclectic, weird, shambolic album so off-putting and yet brilliant, is how they've taken the Pixies' (America's best 80s band) nutcase shouting of Black Francis and combined it, like some genetic splicing was afoot, with The Smiths' more lyric graces - the result, while rarely pleasant or smooth, is a bumpy road down several lanes of tonal memory.

But let's zoom in on the two great songs here - "Parting of the Sensory" - with its carbon robbers ("someday you will die somehow and something's going to steal your carbon") manages to sound like a whisky-and-fiddle piss-up in a mental asylum presided over by The Pogues (Ireland's best 80s band) and a melancholy song by Neil Young, which evokes a tremendous sadness ("all the stubborn beauty") in current American experience ("a lifelong walk to the exact same spot - carbon's anniversary - the parting of the sensory") - more directly, Death. A lament about the inevitability of species extinction, global warming, and god knows what else, it is ugly-beautiful and a benchmark song for these times. "Who the hell made you the boss?" cannot help but make me think of Bush's presiding over a badly listing ship of state ("four year trip to the same spot" might suggest that).

The truly great song here, though, is "Fire It Up" - starting with a charming, mid-tempo inevitability ("if you need some conversation - bring a magazine - to read around our brokedown transportation") - it proceeds to become both very sad, very catchy, and very inspiring - as if Beckett's can't-go-on-must-go-on credo were the latest biofuel, powering this Mouse's engines. It seems to detail the boulder-pushing Camus-absurdist odd jobs of some oddballs, protecting ice cubes from the cold, etc. - crew members on or off a ship so ill-shaped its destination seems off beam and utterly uncompassed - an aberration of stardom. This unhandsome all-hands drunk on deck swagger defines the Zero Meridian at the bone of this finally achieved band.
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