In a bid to bring you the experience of the first time you listen to a new album (whether you love or hate it) David J. Lownds shares his thoughts after just one play of a disc that's new to him.
In a way it is true that my mind feels hazy in the early morning, like a mist has yet to rise from it; indeed, the metaphors from Hendrix ‘s ‘Purple Haze’, a song basically about “confusion” after a “spell” has been cast, come to mind. Yet I am also buzzing, despite my tiredness and the physical sensation of ‘muzziness’, buzzing with more than just caffeine, and I’m not talking about narcotics (which I never take). Instead I’m referring to the slightly illness-inducing emotional ride (similar to a rollercoaster with fewer gleeful highpoints) that is the experience of listening to something as cathartic and both real and surreal as this album.
Life, released in 1990 by the Inspiral Carpets, had somehow apparently never crossed my radar until today, when the band raised their head like a monster emerging from a murky river with a violent current to hunt for the the people who just don’t understand, who perhaps don’t care about “how it feels to be lonely”, the primary theme of the album’s third track. That was the first Inspiral Carpets track I listened to today, thinking as I did so,”I’ve finally found something as depressing as Radiohead.”
That statement, that epiphany of sorts, the likes of which I never thought I would say, was not a compliment to the band. Well, it did not seem at first to be one. But actually, this is a later era dominated, in the charts at least, by less subtle but shallower music that does not at the end of the day have as much to convey in general, even in terms of emotions given to, or even inflicted upon, its audience. Therefore, isn’t the fact some music can make us feel something really significant– even if it is pretty horrible—a grand achievement, though not a great guarantor of repeated plays, for the conduit for such feeling? Surely it is better than the relative numbness of generic, processed foods, one which lacks substance.
Even with the above statement about the sad, almost happiness-crushing profundity of ‘This Is How It Feels’ in mind, it should be said that Inspiral Carpets, on Life at least, did not make simply deep music for melancholy philosopher kings to dwell on in their dreams as they are filled with visions of Nietzche conversing with Solomon about the lack of purpose in life. Indeed, much of the music has a punk-like energy to it, as well as giving off a scent of nightmarish-but-beautiful explosions of multiple layers of colour that is more in-step with Pink Floyd or later weird-but-wonderful creators like DJ Shadow, the talisman behind Endtroducing’s collage of samples that was rocking and mellow, blissful and frightening.
Just as there are two ways of dividing up Life’s dispensing of energy amid patches of more forlorn soundscapes, the manner in which the guitar comes to the foreground into the spotlight and then disappears back into the sonic night, full of eerie synths and so forth, is also appealing in enhancing the multifaceted – one may even say darkly kaleidoscopic – nature of the album. Often the guitar does little but by doing so improves the album, since this allows the brilliant basslines to shine. Melodies on guitar are shown to often excel here too, however. Moreover,although sameness is often seen as a bad thing in terms of evaluating a group of songs, I thought the sameness of guitar and bass, not in terms of monotonous repetition but consistency in quality, strengthens this album for a chance.
The things that I really think could have been better are the singing and the lyrics. The singing, while passionate and sometimes angry, is not as multi-textured, with screams, whispers and so forth, as, say, the voice of the star of that great Nineties tonic for the depressed: Kurt Cobain of the grunge movement. Instead of being that appealing, the vocals often become overly dreary – and are not helped by often overly repetitive lyrics -- despite their great backing. Due to their sometimes quite dirge-like quality they recall the vocal track for ‘No Surprises’ by those funeral-invokers-in-chief, Radiohead. That said, there is a great deal to be said about the dream-like states that whispered and obscured words and vocal sounds create sometimes—see also, Kid A by a certain group founded in Oxford -- but such effects do not add up to proper attempts at singing (or screaming musically) .
However, it is clear from the first full listen that Life is a tour-de-force, ironically more about death than vitality. Yet, despite its quite hard going and unforgiving outlook, it still proved that independent music had soul as the industry entered a new decade of challenges, backing its calamitous message of its aching words with musical promise and bristling attitude. This album demonstrates there is far more depth than the surface-level swagger of many elements of Madchester and Britpop that do not deliver as much pain for the listener and, probably as a consequence, end up being less aesthetically satisfying, not because pain is the ideal – it isn’t – but because strong feelings are usually what causes us to return to, think on or be otherwise affected greatly by music. Although it is not an album I would listen to that often, I know it is worth much, but not to the extent of, say, a song cycle deserving a five-star review. Regardless, I hold Life in quite high esteem despite, or perhaps as a result of, that lack of whatever it is that draws one to the repeat button like a moth to a lamp, compelling though the album was, song by song, on first listen overall.