These are songs written for events, gigs, nights and soforth over the last couple of years, tidied up and edited and re-recorded and wrangled to the point where they behave themselves and don’t dribble at the dinner table. A couple of them are interlopers or distant cousins who turned up and I couldn’t not feed. I’m not a big believer in explaining songs, but there are some weird themes that I didn’t entirely pick myself, so here are the stories behind these eleven tracks.
1. The Man Who Could not Read Minds was originally written for my last Sound of The Ladies album, The City of Gold and Lead, in 2012, but it was written in a fender jaguary-under the bridge style, which I don’t think I’ve ever done very convincingly, so it didn’t make the album. I later repurposed it for Bright Club: Super in Bristol, because it’s sort of about a (non) super power. It was inspired by seeing a pretty girl reading Atlas Shrugged and thinking “Jesus Christ, that’s a terrible book”. Actually, when I was in Bristol for the gig I was wearing my Atlas Shrugged t-shirt and a waiter in a cafe started asking me about it and I had to say “don’t read it, it’s fucking terrible”. Luckily he didn’t call me on the fact I was wearing the t-shirt of a book I hated or he wouldn’t have got a tip.
2. The Look Upon Your Face was written for Robin Ince’s 9 Lessons and Carols for Godless People in 2012. I thought it would be an interesting challenge to write a hymn (well, a song of praise) for atheists to sing, and I thought of the scene in Watchmen where Dr Bluedick talks about the unlikelihood of two human beings getting together, falling in love, and producing the particular person he’s talking to. That night, Alan Moore was performing, which was weird, and I was too shy to talk to him.
3. City of Dread was written for the new gig Steve Cross was running in 2011 and performed at the first ever Science Showoff. I was getting a bit bored of writing science songs, but it was around the time of the faster-than-light neutrino excitement, and I remembered the factoid about a neutrino being so weakly interacting (only weakly interacting, science fans) that it could travel through a light year of lead, so I personified it and started imagining this parallel world where you could move through a city of lead and you’d be seeing it through a veil, with a bunch of scientists hoping to catch you. I was in Vienna and going to lots of pathological exhibitions which always make me ponder my own mortality, and ended up with this mixture of neutrinos, Vienna and my brain.
4. When the nuclear fire rains down was written for Museums Showoff last year. Rachel Souhami, who runs the gig, asked me to do it, not knowing that I know toss all about musuems. I wasn’t even sure what the point of a museum is, but on reflection I decided that education and the preservation of culture and knowledge were quite important elements of that, so I started thinking about how we could rebuild society from musuems in the event of an apocalypse of some kind. My album The City of Gold and Lead had just been deposited in the British Library and so I thought maybe that might be a good way to restart civilisation, and then I remembered all the weird musuems I’d been to in the US and how they could possibly be useful. There was a verse about the Black Country Living Museum but it got cut for concision.
5. Paler Shadow (Instrumental) was one of the first songs I wrote post-City of Gold and Lead, I really liked the bassline but the lyrics we never quite right. So I ditched them and added more guitar parts.
7. My Super Powers was written for Hayley Bennett nee Birch for the aforementioned Bright Club:Super in Bristol. It’s really me listing things I’m good at, with a reminder that most super powers are traumatic. I’ve realised in listening back to this that I don’t really fancy Holly Hunter any more, which is probably for the best. In writing it I was strongly reminded that my super powers overlap a great deal with the confession list of the child in In Bruges: being sad, being moody, being bad at maths.
8. You’re no more than a mile from the beach was written for Alice Bell and Steve Cross when they ran Green Showoff last year. That franchise kept me in songwriting commissions. People burn a lot of oil that we could make useful things (paints, plastics, and so on) from, and I was thinking about equivalent levels of stupidity – how we could take useful stuff and use it for the dumbest things. I came up with smashing up computers to make beaches from the silicon, using fibre optics to make a giant martini glass, making fake trees from books, and clouds from ground up pharmaceuticals. I cannot remember the chords to this song and believe me, I’ve tried. I added a slide bass very late because I like the band Morphine and I like fret noise.
9. Shasta Daisy was written for Vera Chok via Michael Caines for the Brautigan Book Club in 2013, a celebration of the work of author Richard Brautigan. This song was based on Shasta Daisy from Please Plant This Book, but I remember being told that for copyright and artistic reasons I couldn’t use any of the text directly, so I had to create something around the feel of this text. I chose Shasta Daisy because I’ve been to Mount Shasta, and it’s really beautiful; also Pavement namecheck Shasta in Unfair from Crooked Rain and so it sounds like a magical place just because of that. It’s another song where sea levels have risen and Mount Shasta is an island, the town of Shasta converted into a small fishing community. I didn’t like it much when I wrote it but I have a soft spot for it now.
10. Methuselah was written for International Fascination of Plants Day – my friend Anne Osterrieder is a biologist and when she found out that this fell on my birthday, she requested a song. I agreed to do it months in advance and then realised a few days before the song was due that I don’t find plants very fascinating. Then I realised that there were trees that were 5,000 years old, and when they were saplings, people were doing stuff like building Stonehenge. There’s a lot of facty stuff in this song, a lot of playing with timescales and comparing it to the lifetime of Methuselah and Pando, but the last verse always makes me cry, about there being things which are longer lasting than even the trees, in whose lifetime we are a blink of an eye. I really like the guitars, and it’s a really hard song to do live, because so much is in the arrangement. One day I will have my own guitar orchestra.
11. Sandkicker was written for the last album, The City of Gold and Lead, but my wife convinced me to leave it off because she hates whistling. I really like whistling. The bassline is me trying to be David Wm. Sims from The Jesus Lizard.
And that’s all the songs. I hope you enjoy listening to them as much as I’ve enjoyed agonising over them, tweaking arrangements, throwing away arrangements, and scrapping the lyrics altogether. I quite enjoyed my period of being a songwriter on commission. Well, for free. But anyway, please do download the album, and if you like it, tell everyone about it. As well as pay what you want on Bandcamp it’s on iTunes and Spotify and all the rest. Thank you for listening.