9/14 ESCAPISM: ‘The Devil and the Angel’
Wales v England. Always a difficult one for me. Welsh blood English heart. I can’t remember the last time Wales beat England in the football. Rugby… now that’s a different matter – but for some reason Wales just can’t pull it together in the football. Ranked between Haiti and Grenada apparently… and that’s not good! So it’s always with faint embarrassment that I watch Wales play football. And although I support England at every sport it is always a tug of the heart-strings when they play Wales. Like two sides of my soul competing in battle, ripping each other apart and yet coming together as one when the whistle blows.
Those two sides… the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other. The devil telling you to write simple, easy on the ear songs and the angel telling you to always write from the heart. Or is it the other way round? Anyway, they both have a point. The devil just wants you to succeed and earn a lot of money. He just wants you to write that hit song – that song that’ll earn you a million dollars. He just wants you to write simple songs that the general public can relate to . He wants you to write a “Yellow” or a “Wonderwall” and then have an Adele-like album success story. He knows you have to eat and he knows what you could do to fill that stomach. You don’t even have to sell your soul to him… you just have to stick with the melodies, stick with the McCartneyisms, write “The Bends”.
But the angel tells you that the hits aren’t important. The angel says that you have to follow your own path and write music that you can be proud of forever more. Music that is artistically satisfying and sod the money! The angel wants you to write “Kid A”.
For a songwriter this can be a tightrope. I should qualify that! There are some songwriters that will never experience this dilemma for there are many out there who couldn’t write a great song even if a friend travelled into the future, stole an almanac of classic songs then travelled back in time and placed said almanac under said songwriter’s pillow.
But for a lot of songwriters the devil and the angel are an issue. In fact, the score right now is England 1 – 0 Wales. England play in white, Wales play in red. Hmmmm… relevant? I’m serious. The devil and the angel do indeed often come out to play. The songwriter wants to be considered an artist you see. An artist – fancy that! The musician wants to be considered clever. Ha ha! He wants to write ‘clever’ music. He wants to dumbfound and even alienate his audience. For alienation can be satisfying. Alienation can even be rewarding. The devil struggles with this… but if you get it right you can alienate your audience and mesmerise them. You can seduce them with an agile twist and turn. The devil appreciates “Ok Computer” but is unsure of exactly how it happened. The devil would rather you didn’t entertain such thoughts. Forget it and listen to “Angel” by Robbie Williams a few more times. Then the devil decides that suggesting you listen to “Angel” is a bit contrary and he suggests “Highway to Hell” instead!
The switched on songwriter knows you have to strike a balance. Whether that be across the range of songs on an album – i.e. have a couple of singalong singles and a few deeper songs… or internally within the song itself. For a song can be clever and catchy – the perfect balance perhaps. And sometimes songs that sound simple and catchy are actually clever and catchy but disguised as simple and catchy. McCartney was perhaps the king of the simple and catchy (but really clever and catchy) song. There are many exponents out there including one of my favourites, Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks. Many of those songs that you think are just throwaway pop songs actually have an intricate, delicate structure hiding beneath the surface. Or you were right in the first place and they are just throwaway pop songs! Do you know which are which? Do I? Do you care? Do I?
I think that a lot of songwriters want acceptance from their peers. They need other musicians to acknowledge their talent and fulfil their want of worthiness. And this exploration for the lost chord, the sound that will cause all others to down tools and proclaim “God-like Genius”tm status, can so often be their downfall. I can think of a whole host of musicians that have at one time or another fallen into this category. It’s not important to name them… but sometimes just because you CAN play notes only a Golden Headed Langur can hear, doesn’t mean you have to!!! (Steve Vai, not naming any names… but I am pointing at you!).
So when you find a band that gets this balance right you tend to fall in love. Most of the bands I adore strike the balance. They live with the devil and the angel and survive the conflict. When one of these bands gets it right it moves you. When the Flaming Lips released “the Soft Bulletin”, I felt that power. That album was clever and simple. It was the album Goldilocks would have chosen had the house had three record players rather than three bowls of porridge. A close to perfect album. I could have picked a whole host of albums to represent examples of ‘devil and angel’ albums. I could have picked “Revolver”, “His ‘n’ Hers”, “Grace”, “Pet Sounds”, “Silent Alarm” or “Is This It?”. Albums that reach the parts other collections of songs cannot reach. And often the very same bands will start to prefer the advice coming from one shoulder over another. They veer too far away from the line of balance – with various degrees of success. They can be lucky and still produce an album which is loved… or they can be unlucky and create an album that becomes a source of amusement and derision. I think the Flaming Lips, Lennons and Radioheads of this world have all veered from the path and enjoyed the positives and the negatives of the experience.
During the writing of “Escapism” I have walked that fine line between pretentious and commercial. Every artist wants to have a commercial success… don’t let any of them tell you otherwise. However, if you can achieve that success whilst never abandoning what you believe in then all power to you. I think Bill and I have pulled off a sweet yet clever album with “Escapism” and I’m sure the song ‘A Thousand Steps’ was a contributing factor. We chose to document every second of the songs creation – from the moment I first picked up the acoustic guitar, until the moment I finalised the mix. As we worked on ‘A Thousand Steps’ I was fearful that we might be creating a song that satisfied us as writers but left the public cold. But I’m pretty sure we took the advice of the devil and the angel and in many ways Bill and I actually become the devil and the angel during the songwriting process. One of us will make a decision and the other will flag up its potential pitfalls. A battle always rages. A friendly battle… but a rewarding battle. The outcome for us has been songs such as ‘A Thousand Steps’, ‘The Calm and the Storm’ and ‘Where We Go Next’. Songs that don’t shy from being intellectual, and yet have that commercial appeal that the public crave… we hope. However, please note that I will never confuse having an element of “commercial appeal” with being a producer of “coffee table album”s. Don’t fret… I could (and probably will) wax lyrical about coffee table albums in a future post. 😉 For now my friends, I leave you with track 9 of “Escapism”… A Thousand Steps. Oh.. and Wales lost.