CARDIACS: SING TO GOD (1996)
1) Eden On The Air; 2) Eat It Up Worms Hero; 3) Dog-Like Sparky; 4) Fiery Gun Hand; 5) Insect Hoofs On Lassie; 6) Fairy Mary Mag; 7) Bellyeye; 8) A Horse's Tail; 9) Manhoo; 10) Wireless; 11) Dirty Boy; 12) Billion; 13) Odd Even; 14) Bell Stinks; 15) Bell Clinks; 16) Flap Off You Beak; 17) Quiet As A Mouse; 18) Angleworm Angel; 19) Red Fire Coming Out From His Gills; 20) No Gold; 21) Nurses Whispering Verses; 22) Foundling.
If you want a really gushing, salivating, over-the-top-laudatory review of this record, go read this glowing account by Sam Shepherd, who either genuinely believes that Sing To God is one of the greatest records ever made, or must have been so heavily bribed by Alphabet Business Concern that all past and present members of the band should have been left penniless. Granted, the man is not alone in his judgement: the sheer sprawl, scope, loudness, epicness of the record was enough to convert many fans, and there is no denying that a huge mass of creative ideas and painstaking work was involved in its preparation.
I am, however, not impressed — at least, not from a general chronological perspective. First and foremost, if I wanted to make a case for Sing To God as the band's magnum opus in anything other than length terms, I'd need to see what sort of advanced level it represents. Has Tim Smith, on this particular occasion, managed to expand the borders in a clearly perceivable manner? Is he providing any new insights? Are the songs ostensibly improved since last time, or the time before last? I do not get that feeling; as far as I can tell, there may be more of them, yes, but they are still typical Cardiacs songs that share all of the Cardiacs' virtues and vices.
And honestly, with four well-produced, well-pronounced, idea-filled records under their belts, a double album that gives you the same old shit — no matter how complex and technically unpredictable that same old shit is (and, actually, at this juncture the Cardiacs' unpredictability is itself becoming almost boringly predictable), it is rather hard to go on being amazed by it. How many times can you shuffle a kaleidoscope (getting different results every time) before the process becomes monotonous and irritating? The worst thing about Sing To God is: I have listened to it four times, all of its ninety minutes, and I was never once amazed or astounded — yet, clearly, like everything the Cardiacs did, this is an album that is supposed to astound you, and if it does not, and the magic does not work, then it is a failure.
Or maybe not; maybe the worst thing about it is how it presents itself as far more ambitious than anything they did before. From the pretentious title, to the pretentious opening (chimes! soft waves of electronic tinkle! choral harmonies! trying to find the perfect piano chord!), to the 22-track length, they do seem to be telling us, "this is the Cardiacs like you've never heard us before; this is the meaning of life in ninety minutes; this is our Lifehouse and SMiLE all in one, only we succeed where the ancestors have failed". And to me, it just sounds like one big senseless put-on: an album that's 100% style, 0% substance. The songs come and go, deconstructing and intermingling genres like bits of chopped liver, but never bothering to make a proper point.
It's not like there aren't any cool ideas — it's that the album suffers even more than its predecessors from excess, not knowing when to stop and explore the full potential of a good idea before surrounding it with half a dozen mediocre ones. It's almost maddening: a tune like ʻDog-Like Sparkyʼ, for instance, which has a couple really cool, Sparks-style lines in the chorus, but they are always over before you can properly enjoy them, and on the whole, the song is just a quick succession of different disconcerting tempos and time signatures that represent complexity for complexity's sake, and I will not pretend for a single moment that I enjoy any of it. At least a band like 10cc had some sense of measure.
When the band goes into fast-'n'-furious rocking mode (ʻEat It Up Worms Heroʼ, ʻFiery Gun Handʼ, etc.), they are not doing anything new, either, and they are not generating any true rock'n'roll energy, because it's all tongue-in-cheek, and because it can all stop and become a waltz or a ska piece or an oratorio at any given moment. These songs have literally no purpose other than masturbatory — oh how clever! this is punk, but this is not really punk! we'll let you figure out what it is, or, rather, let you wonder all about it until the end of your days, in stupefied amazement never ending. But what if it is... nothing?
I mean, something like ʻDirty Boyʼ off the top of the second disc sounds like it's poised to be sung on top of Mount Everest, addressed to any of our alien friends if they happen to float by. With big, thunderous bass riffs, screechy lead guitar, wall-of-sound production, and a fin-du-siecle feel that could put Radiohead to shame, it could be the decade's biggest anthem... but there is one thing that it lacks: a killer chord sequence or vocal line that could be endowed/imbued with its own infallible meaning. But its lyrics are undecipherable, its vocals are neither triumphant nor lamenting, its atmosphere neither celebratory nor apocalyptic, neither friendly nor hostile. When it all comes together in the final "over and out!", with vocals artificially enhanced and stretched over at least a minute-long coda, I am almost inclined to fall under the song's mammoth spell, but some little voice in the back of my head keeps telling me that I've been had, and I have a nasty habit of trusting that little voice.
Technically, we could discuss all the complexities and twists of the individual songs until dawn, with occasional detours into the area of mutual influence (ʻManhooʼ sounds like classic Blur circa ʻFor Tomorrowʼ, etc.) or self-admiration (ʻNurses Whispering Versesʼ is an old, old song from the era of shit quality cassette tapes — maybe that is why I find it the most memorable of all the tunes here?), but I do not believe it will do much good, because if there is a «strength» to this record, it is exclusively in its piecemeal nature. Dissect these songs and put them under a microscope and there will be no evidence of any significant musical discoveries, since all of these elements can be found scattered across a million pop, prog, and punk records. Tim Smith's scavenging nature can be admired, yes, but even the seams are too crude, and ultimately, «dementia» and «narcissism» are the only generalizing terms that come to mind.
As of now, I tend to view this whole thing as the turning point where the Cardiacs lost their collective mind — not so much their SMiLE, really, as their Tales From Topographic Oceans, a record that has its sturdy army of fans, too, of course, so if excess and sprawl is your cup of tea, feel free to indulge. Maybe one day when I encounter somebody's positive description of the album that goes beyond trivialities like "oh, there's so much going on here, it must be great!" and actually tries to explain what about it is so great (particularly in comparison to earlier, more restrained Cardiacs albums), I will want to reconsider. Currently, I'm just bored to death, and the album gets a certified thumbs down.