BE-BOP DELUXE: SUNBURST FINISH (1976)
1) Fair Exchange; 2) Heavenly Homes; 3) Ships In The Night; 4) Crying To The Sky; 5) Sleep That Burns; 6) Beauty Secrets; 7) Life In The Air Age; 8) Like An Old Blues; 9) Crystal Gazing; 10) Blazing Apostles.
Turning temporary session player Andy Clark into the band's resident keyboard master was probably not the main reason why Sunburst Finish might look like a serious improvement over the «sophomore slump». After all, he is never credited for any songwriting, nor is he some sort of Rick Wakeman, capable of adding exciting (if not always meaningful) passages to melodically unexciting compositions. On the other hand, fleshing the band out with an additional layer of sound could somehow have brought about a more disciplined approach to songwriting... well, the point is, Sunburst Finish is a little less about virtuoso guitar playing than Axe Victim, and a little more about meaningful hooks than Futurama. In other words, all the three albums of Be-Bop Deluxe's «glam» period are similar, yet all are also different.
Although ʽFair Exchangeʼ opens the record with feedback blasts, these are quickly replaced by quite modern-sounding synthesizer patterns — inspired, one might add, not so much by the robotic fantasies of Kraftwerk as by the idealistic pulsations of Who's Next: modern they might be, but the New Wave penchant for «refrigerator electronica» had not yet caught up with Nelson by that particular point in time. In fact, electronic pulses soon give way to good old-fashioned rock and roll guitars (playing a riff akin to AC/DC's ʽHigh Voltageʼ), enhanced with a grand piano sound that seemes to show Roy Bittan's influence. Bruce Springsteen meets the Young brothers — hey, that could actually work, and on ʽFair Exchangeʼ, it does. As is often the case, it is hard to get what the song is about, but it is definitely about somebody's highbrowed anger, and the riffs, solos, and keyboard enhancements are all in agreement on that.
However, Nelson is willing to compromise his artistic integrity even further: ʽShips In The Nightʼ, released as the «commercially oriented» single from the album, is basically a ska song, tripped up and decorated with artsy passages, but, in the end, with an overall message that is hardly much different from that of ʽOb-La-Di Ob-La-Daʼ: "Without love, we are like ships in the night, selling our souls down the river", sung to a boppy, cheery pattern. There is not that much guitar on the song at all — it is primarily driven by the rhythm section and the keyboards, culminating in a «mock-sax» electronic solo that almost puts the song in campy parody territory. Who knows, maybe it was a parody — Nelson's ironic take on a «commercial» tune that paid off very well, since the song became Be-Bop Deluxe's highest point on the charts. But I think that it must only have soured Bill's impression of the true meaning of «chart life» even further.
That said, ʽShips In The Nightʼ is hardly the best choice to convey the general spirit of the album. Such a choice could, for instance, be ʽSleep That Burnsʼ, an ambitious chunk of composing that rolls through hard-rocking choo-choo sections, music hall extravaganzas, psychedelic interludes with backwards solos, and finally explodes after a massive guitar/keyboard build-up in the coda. And it does have a catchy chorus behind all that, despite its primary goal of conveying an atmosphere of hyperactive personal torment: the «sleep that burns» in question is of a kind that causes the patient to chuck his TV out of the window rather than pop pills and moonwalk. Emphasis is always on burning, not on sleeping (or not sleeping).
Or it could be Nelson's equivalent of the power ballad spot — ʽHeavenly Homesʼ, an inspiring mix of romantic piano, acoustic guitar, and glam riffs that, once again, sounds like an arithmetic mean between Bowie and Hammill, but grander than the former and more «song-like» than the latter. For all his irony and cynicism, Nelson has nothing against the old heart-on-sleeve trick from time to time, except that he never forgets to back it up with a return to harsh reality — ʽHeavenly Homesʼ joyfully flutters past the stars for several minutes before smashing, full speed, into the hardbodied asteroid of the "Heavenly homes... are hard to find..." chorus, set to a variation on Pink Floyd's descending/ascending ʽEchoesʼ riff for a sharp doom-laden effect.
Since most of the songs are marinated in the same musical and lyrical idiom, it makes little sense to comment on all of them: chances are that if you like one, you'll like the rest as well, so a thumbs up is quite imminent. But note that it also makes sense to hunt for the CD reissue, which adds three interesting bonus tracks: an almost totally instrumental psycho-funk jam (ʽShineʼ), a dark romantic ballad with a surprisingly tender and introspective underbelly (ʽSpeed Of The Windʼ), and a slow dance-style B-side with a psychedelic guitar/synth duet (ʽBlue As A Jewelʼ) — all three are curious in their own ways, and all three are quite different from the average style of the album itself.
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