AZTEC CAMERA: KNIFE (1984)
1) Still On Fire; 2) Just Like The USA; 3) Head Is Happy (Heart's Insane); 4) The Back Door To Heaven; 5) All I Need Is Everything; 6) Backwards And Forwards; 7) The Birth Of The True; 8) Knife.
«Atmosphere». Why do people sometimes think that, once they got «atmosphere», they got everything? Why do they sometimes think that, just because they have gained access to electronic equipment, the «atmosphere» that they create with it will be properly expressing their hearts' desires and sentiments? Why did Knife put a quick and humiliating end to Roddy Frame's conquest of the world? Fuckin' atmosphere.
Oh, I'm not talking about short-term commercial success. In the UK, it charted all right, on the heels of the high reputation of its predecessor and further boosted by the choice of Mark Knopfler as producer (and some members of Dire Straits guest-starring in the studio as well). However, it only yielded one single, ʽAll I Need Is Everythingʼ, which failed to repeat the success of ʽObliviousʼ, and overall, it was clear that Frame did not intend Knife to be a singles-oriented collection at all. Instead, he probably intended for it to show more maturity, seriousness, and psychological depth: the 20-year old songwriter was already getting too old for simplistic dance music, the new charge had to show a sophisticatedly intelligent glow to it. The band didn't simply choose Mark Knopfler because of his fame — they went after his image as a wise old young man. They forgot that, as a side effect, the man could also be deadly boring, and inflict his boredom on others at will. That is exactly what happened.
First and foremost, Knife sounds nothing like its predecessor. The first album was completely dominated by acoustic and, less frequently, electric guitar. On Knife, keyboards, played by Guy Fletcher, climb to the top of the mountain from the very start and very, very rarely get down from there. This alone makes the whole thing rather unexceptional as far as commercial music from 1984 is concerned. Second, placing most of his effort in the lyrics, Roddy seems nowhere near as concerned about the musical hooks as he used to be. I don't know, maybe he thought Knopfler would be providing the hooks somehow, with his production. Wait a bit... Knopfler providing the hooks? All Dire Straits fans like myself are supposed to see the irony in this.
There are a couple of songs, for sure, that feature occasional pretty / bouncy guitar lines. ʽAll I Need Is Everythingʼ is actually one of them, and is close in mood to matching the intelligent romantic optimism of High Land. But ooh, these rotten keyboards, «atmospherically» sighing in the background and casio-chuckling in the foreground. And the generic Spanish guitar solo at the end? Who needs that? Atmosphere strikes again. ʽJust Like The USAʼ, a song that has nothing to do with the USA and everything to do with Roddy's attempts to evaluate his place in the world, is actually much better — it's the only song on the album where the guitar remains charming and playful throughout. Nowhere else is the poor instrument allowed that much freedom.
Most of the compositions actually roll along at a steady, unnerving, unchanging, flat mid-tempo, serving as carriers for Roddy's poems. They are interesting poems, for sure, ambiguous, open to various interpretations, but who is really going to wreck his brain trying to decipher the intellectual message of something like ʽThe Back Door To Heavenʼ? "My eyes are stuck on sleepless dreams / The world is never what it seems / We've sold it short, it's what we're taught / Lost it in the living" — okay there, Roddy, it's an acceptable, if familiar, message, but why accompany it with such insipid music? This way, you will never in a million years convince anybody that "the back door to heaven is open wide to me". If the back door to heaven is anything like this generic set of flourishes, I'd much rather use the front.
The nadir is left for the end. The title track is not a cover of the classic Genesis composition (not that there could really be any hope), but a nine-minute original, dragging along at a snail's pace, intended to become Frame's ultimate confession, but set back by a complete lack of melody — nothing but atmosphere, created in the same predictable way. Serious minor chords on the piano, philosophically colored repetitive guitar lines, a one or two-note bassline dripping along like a broken faucet, and vocals that plead, sigh, and complain instead of singing. Of course, every one in a thousand, or one in ten thousand people, or whatever, will find the effect mesmerizing and heartbreaking. Try it out — you may be one of the few lucky ones. I happen to find every single component of the composition unoriginal, un-individual, and devoid of sensual or intellectual stimulation. In other words, it's a horrific bore.
I really hate it when a magnificent first album gives way to a heavily disappointing second one, and in each such case, I would really, really like to think that the problem is somehow only in me, not in the music. But then, what can I do? Me and High Land took to each other rather quickly; me and Knife feel no mutual empathy whatsoever. Maybe it's just because I like bouncy acoustic guitar more than I like crawling electronic keyboards. Maybe it's more complicated than that. Maybe I'm not getting this whole «maturity» thing. Maybe I instinctively hate Mark Knopfler, whose second album was also a major disappointment after the first one, and who may have, since then, inflicted the same damage on everybody he produced. But I gotta say this — Brothers In Arms, whatever be, was a much better album than Knife. Which gets me thinking that Roddy Frame might have managed a great cover of ʽWalk Of Lifeʼ. But not ʽMoney For Nothingʼ. He doesn't have enough spite in him to cover ʽMoney For Nothingʼ. Thumbs down.
PS. The album sleeve is unquestionably the coolest thing about it, but it does not match the contents one bit. Take my warning.