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Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Chameleons: What Does Anything Mean? Basically


1) Silence, Sea And Sky; 2) Perfume Garden; 3) Intrigue In Tangiers; 4) Return Of The Roughnecks; 5) Singing Rule Britannia (While The Walls Close In); 6) On The Beach; 7) Looking Inwardly; 8) One Flesh; 9) Home Is Where The Heart Is; 10) P.S. Good­bye; 11*) In Shreds; 12*) Nostalgia.

Some critics ardently defend this record, insisting that its similarity to Script Of The Bridge is superficial, and that in reality it manages to surpass its predecessor in scope, depth, taste, and any other qualities that separate Art from Arse. Perhaps they are really thorough and accurate people, capable of seeing something that I fail to see even after three or four listens; honestly, though, while I do perceive slightly cleaner production and a bigger role allocated to synthesizers (as seen already on the brief lead-in instrumental, ʽSilence, Sea And Skyʼ, so ethereal that I keep waiting for it to break into the Twin Peaks theme at any moment), I am not sure that these changes neces­sarily improve on the impact of Script, nor do I succeed in observing any other visible improve­ments in melody, arrangement, lyrics, or vocal deliveries.

Overall, things stay the same: what we have here is nine more examples of «average» song­writing where intelligence and restraint are greatly valued over raw emotional expression, thus damaging both the band's commercial potential and, I am afraid, the artistic as well: too much Apollo, not enough Dionysus. The band's intentions remain admirable: few people in the music business circa 1985 were able to spell out everything that was wrong with life in the UK (and, by extrapolation, in the whole wide world) this articulately — ʽReturn Of The Roughnecksʼ and ʽSinging Rule Britanniaʼ, sitting back-to-back in the middle of the album, are, in theory, fabulous anthems of impending doom on both the personal ("I'm a working class zero / Chained to the tree of life") and the social ("Vices embraced in times of crisis") levels. But something about these songs still makes them stop just short of brilliance, and I cannot easily decode what it is.

Perhaps it is the production, after all — a special style of Eighties production that reduces all melodic ideas, no matter how excellent, to the same common denominator: with big drums and delayed guitars dominant on each and every song, two or three numbers into the album I am already showing signs of being worn down. This is precisely where the situation might be saved with a super-class singer like Bono or Morrissey or a super-class guitar player like The Edge or Johnny Marr, people that are able to transcend the limits of generic, monotonous production; Mark Burgess and his guitarists cannot transcend it, not even with briefly attention-attracting gimmicks such as quoting ʽShe Said She Saidʼ at the end of ʽSinging Rule Britanniaʼ (so that, once again, instead of feeling the music, you begin sending signals to the logical part of your brain, trying to understand what these two songs might have in common).

On a positive note, even in purely musical terms, these are good songs. Even if they still tend to rely upon fast-tempo chug-chug-chugging riffs much too often, they are still more complex than the average chainsaw buzz rhythm track, and sometimes include mood-shifting key changes that can take the song in a completely different direction — note, for instance, how the angry, fuzzy verse riff of ʽSinging Rule Britanniaʼ is replaced by a cleaner, more «heavenly» (or psychedelic) riff of the bridge section. The eight-bar riff of ʽLooking Inwardlyʼ is one of the simplest and catchiest musical phrases they ever came up with, and I cannot help wondering how it would have sounded in Paul McCartney's hands — then the song unpredictably slows down for the second half, and becomes a soft dirge, punctuated by melancholic single-note lead guitar howls (yes, looking inward can be quite painful for the looker, we know that). Even their synth-centered songs are creative: ʽHome Is Where The Heart Isʼ progresses in mid-tempo «waves» of synthesized sounds washing each other off the table, instead of merely provi­ding a monotonous adult contemporary background.

Nevertheless, you know something's not right when you literally have to screw your ears into the sound in order to appreciate the band's songwriting and musicianship: unless this Eighties sound is like mother's milk to your organism, now that the surprise of discovery is no longer there and things become rather safely predictable, Mark Burgess' depress-poetry is not enough to overcome the basic effect of boredom. And, perhaps even more importantly, by 1985 they were outdone on all fronts by The Smiths — who had better musicianship, better production values, a far more gripping frontman, and totally comparable poetic skills, while at the same time aiming for simi­lar emotional impressions. Of course, The Smiths had bigger egos, too; but hey, rock'n'roll has always been your basic playground for big egos from the days of Little Richard, so I am not going to automatically prefer The Chameleons just because Mark Burgess is tactful enough not to shove his broken heart right in your face.

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