I had to come out of hiatus for this. Look at that album cover. How could I deny those puppy eyes and broken necks? Then there was the press release, which read:
Songs For Swinging Lovers is a stunning, diverse and intellectually complex record that marries the band’s trademark lyrical precision and songwriting skill with a broad palette of musical styles and influences. The strains of country, Weimar cabaret, holy bible-era manics, belle epoque cafe music, Muder (sic) Ballads-era Nick cave, 90s indie and 70s sleaze can all be heard in the arrangements.
My pulse actually turned to alka seltzer in my veins after reading that. It’s been over two years of admiring The Indelicates for their unpretentious intellect, their poetry, their leitmotifs, their dedication to critical thinking and dark humour. Now I can add new media warriors to their laudable qualities. I’m not overly passionate about most causes, but the one that I have been perhaps the most vocal about (well, my typing has been pretty deafening) is the paradigm-rattling effect of new media, especially on the music industry and the copyright vs privacy debate. I’ve been blathering on for years about the flaws in the music industry, about the McLuhanesque impact of the MP3 file, and about copyright laws in a digital world and the outdated metaphorical language that they are built upon. Here’s a band of artists that has taken a similar stance and used similar arguments to achieve something much more than a semi-academic blog rant. Instead, they have birthed Corporate Records and a praiseworthy sophomore album. As I’ve stated before, they are truly multidisciplinary in their branding and artistic endeavours; with their understanding of the direction the music industry is heading, The Indelicates should give lectures to the disappointingly backwards artists like those involved in the redundant FAC (I say disappointing because I was shocked at some of the artists on their list).
I first noticed Simon and Julia over two years ago while scanning through pages and pages of artists at the SXSW website; several months later, their debut album American Demo became the runner-up in my Top 40 Albums of 2008. Songs For Swinging Lovers is a much more varied affair in terms of genre; they actually fulfill the promises of their press release (no mean feat when so many bands fail to deliver on even the first of their claims). While this record may not be as immediately accessible as their first, it is very obviously both its sequel and equal and still teeming with more adept social criticism, including further incisive commentary on feminism, youth, the music industry, celebrity, fascism, hypocrisy, and narrow-mindedness. There is the same calibre of intelligent (often brutal) candour as that of Luke Haines, something that the majority of their cohort are missing and something that most are too afraid to touch. And while The Indelicates’ sleeves are draped in impressive influences (musical and otherwise), they twist them into something as original as art can ever be without being created in a vacuum, taking in history and apt social observations to complicate clichés and debunk everyday myths.
Pounding away as the first of two Weimar cabaret songs (a style preceded by the Indelicates’ Christmas treat of Zuhalterballade), Europe is a satire of decadence and privilege. The self-aware seediness to be found in continental salons of the early 20th century can be just as easily applied to the farcical display of more recent moneyed classes, and its undignified grasping is articulated perfectly through Julia’s vocal strength and unrestrained operatics. This is followed by the most Manics-inflected of the tracks, Your Money, which swells from a sweet piano melody into an electric guitar anthem bristling like a sea of broken flag standards. Simon spits a furious stream of brilliant lyrics, including a fantastic 1984 reference (“Do it to Julia”) that plays on his partner’s name as much as it does on the narrator’s self-conscious musings on hypocrisy and the sick dominance of money in the world of art. In yet another song about an ostensibly “brainwashed” historical figure (see the brilliant Unity Mitford on American Demo), The Indelicates serenade Patty Hearst with We Love You, Tania. It’s a loungey number with a staggering yet rousing feel, unsteady on its feet like someone who drank a pint glass full of yeasty honesty. It features the rather profound line, “When you’re other to everyone, you’re a valuable girl.”
Pushing on with their earlier themes of diseased celebrity culture, which yearns for damaged people, and parasitic media (see also New Art for the People, We Hate the Kids, Waiting for Pete Doherty to Die), they address one such hapless character in Ill. They chant:
Your sickness is your shibboleth
Your sex is your sickness
And you’ve got time, you’ve got time to lose
Because you’ll never take enough of those pills,
You know you’re too clever to be mentally ill,
You’ll never fashion your damaged soul
Because you’re too clever to lose control
The next track, Flesh, makes mine crawl a little, a testament to the combination of the astute lyrics and the interplay of Julia’s sweetly vacant vocals with Simon’s predatory background vocals, “oh, flesh.” The muted trumpet sounds filthy as Julia sings about the seemingly acceptable malleability of females and further feminist failings: “Hey doc can you take my skin and melt it into plastic/Beauty isn’t truth it’s just youth, it’s adaptive and it’s elastic.” Vocals then pass off to Simon for Savages, a tinkly ballad that turns into a soaring synthy anthem by its end, is a brilliant revel in the vindication of outsider-dom. With a wonderful tie-in with the album cover, the chorus goes, “the world has no need of the songs that we sang/We are savages and we’ll hang, hang, hang.” Savages also has one of my favourite lines of the record: “we are Greeks in the age of Rome/With no right to criticise the happily dull to Grecian eyes.” There’s fight and survival in the apparent surrender; any golden age is just a gilded cage.
I suppose it says something about my character that the macabre murder ballad, Roses, doesn’t disturb me as much as Flesh. In true Nick Cave style, Roses is mesmerizing and miasmic as it sways slowly through the savouring of a homicide – punctured lungs, sawed-off limbs and all – while also mocking the vampiric. The chorus, which gently croons “Do you bleed diamonds/do you bleed rubies/do you bleed roses?,” is enchanting and sinister to me in the same way Windmills of Your Mind and Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) are. The pace picks up again with Sympathy for the Devil; rather than a cocky rebel sneer, it’s a knees-up Irish drinking song told by a much more believable Beelzebub than Jagger’s. As he recounts his journey out of Heaven, he plays Pied Piper to an unnamed lover, who is to meet him at the border in the morning. We learn that even the Devil is dissatisfied with this world. This is also the first track to be made into a music video – the rest of the album’s songs will eventually follow. The second Weimar-themed song, Be Afraid of Your Parents, continues with the dramatics reminiscent of Brecht/Weill compositions as it lambastes fascism and its attractive rhetoric, including the dangerous dialectic to be found in scapegoating. Simon takes over vocals as he namechecks Derrida and Foucault and the distance from humanity that academic theory provides. The sentiment in the track’s title is one that permeates The Indelicates’ body of work; keep your mind sharp and keep questioning precedents and “truths.” Julia and Simon keep you off balance by embedding layer after layer of latent meaning and then shifting them about, shaking you out of passive consumption.
The musical tone of the record becomes lighter with the jaunty Jerusalem, a satire of the stillborn revolution in today’s young people, who think “it seems rebellious to vote Conservative now.” It also serves as a parody of the English patriotic song of the same title and perhaps a stab at Labour Party idealism. The clueless subjects of this track “excel at drama and formal debating,” but care to know nothing of reality and take pseudo-political postures instead. The final track on the album proper, Anthem for Doomed Youth, is a delicate song that skips along in a lackadaisical fashion and ends in heavenly choruses provided by Julia; it also emphasizes many of the points already made in Jerusalem. Simon reiterates the futility of youth-based subcultures and the lack of something worth fighting for or against, singing “there’s nobody left in the West these days/wronged enough to be a punk” and “we are miners no more/never torn by a war/neither starving, nor struggling, nor incredibly poor.” There’s also an excellent snarl of “the three-inch bruise at the crook of your arm/that in the right light looks like Jesus,” which may or may not be a parody of a line in The Killers’ When You Were Young. The two bonus tracks currently available on the Corporate Records’ site are I Don’t Care If It’s True and an acoustic version of Savages; the former is a proud refusal to join in anymore with latin accents while the latter is a fragile rendition with hints of the shambolic sighs found in American Demo‘s Better To Know.
The album is available for download from here, where you can choose what you pay. Come June, I know I will be buying a physical copy of the album and any book or foodstuff that can be added on to it. I have never been disappointed with their challenging art. They continue to dissect societal ills with a surgeon’s precision and a cabaret MC’s panache. Songs For Swinging Lovers confirms The Indelicates’ paradox of condemning idealism and evading the romantic notion of promising revolution or escape while simultaneously giving people something exhilarating to rally behind, a whetstone for senses dulled on complacency. Oddly enough, they encapsulate a different semantic plane of We Love You, Tania; they are definitely other to most bands, and thus, so valuable. We need a band like this even if the masses ignore them and their witty words just hang, hang, hang. I’ll gladly go to the gallows with The Indelicates.
My brief sojourn back in the blogosphere will last for one more post as I conduct my Indelicates interview.