PERMANENT RECORDS: I WANT MY SUN-DRENCHED, WIND-SWEPT INGRID BERGMAN KISS
Permanent Records is a year-long project. Each Friday (or thereabouts), I will post a new entry about one specific album, chosen due to its significance to myself as a fan. Though the list is numbered, a particular record's placement should not be considered a ranking. There will be 52 albums in all.
This endeavor is based on a concept started by Chris Tamarri at Crisis/Boring Change.
46. THE BEAUTIFUL SOUTH - MIAOW (1994)
Personnel: Paul Heaton, vocals; Jacqueline Abbot, vocals; Dave Hemingway, vocals; David Rotheray, guitars; Sean Welch, bass; David Stead, drums; Damon Butcher, piano; Martin Ditcham, percussion
Producer: Jon Kelly /Label: Go! Discs
This week's entry is a brother to the sister of last week's entry. Your post-Valentine's Valentine. If Neil Hannon's Divine Comedy struck a pose I know far too well--romantic boy with a self-deprecating defense--then Paul Heaton's Beautiful South, on their album Miaow, has found my other guise--hopeless romantic as cynic. How else do you explain an album that opens with an anthem about the hopelessness of social ills ("Hold On To What?"), creates a ballad for the destitute (my February 14 download, "Especially For You"), and a decidedly sentimental song about growing old together, celebrating the wrinkles on a lover's face as if they formed a map of the relationship ("Prettiest Eyes")? The same man writes the lines "I'll still be trying to get your clothes off/ When I lie 6ft below" and "But you'll never hear the crack of a frown/ When you are here/ You'll never hear the crack/ Of a frown"--how can that be?
Surely the answer can be no surprise to you. If you've paid even a little attention to life around you, you'll know that the most rotten doom-and-gloom bastard has the shiniest heart of gold. Right? Or is the cynical side of us more correct, and when we mutter, "No one will ever notice how special I am," we're speaking truer than we know?
Shit. Now I'm depressed.
But...never mind, because you know I'm right when you think about it. Like, who is the biggest, most macho, gruffest guy out there? Papa Hemingway, yeah? Well, if you've read the end of The Sun Also Rises and it didn't make you melt, then maybe you better start thinking about your own position on such things. The dude was a lover!
Hell, spend five minutes with me, and chances are you'll see my mood swing from hopeful and triumphant to doomed and dismal in no times. I am the guy who walks around telling people I write romances, but who harbors a fantasy hatched all the way back in high school where I would go to my true love's wedding to another guy, get trashed, give a drunken toast, and then go home and hang myself as their jet takes off for the honeymoon. Trés romantique! (Don't worry. I can't do it now, because I told everyone about it, there'd be no surprise to it. Then again, I have also thought about committing suicide and leaving a note that says, "Oh, like you didn't see this coming!" So, one never knows.)
Hang on. Why did you all back away when you read that? You don't see the dark and lovely tragedy of it all? There's a song on Miaow that kind of connects to these scenarios, so I know Paul Heaton understands where I'm coming from. "Worthless Lie" is the tale of two lovers--sung by Heaton and Jacqueline Abbot in tandem--who have been separated and are now with others; yet, the connection lingers in secret, so that everything they do in their current relationship causes them to think of who they are with as who they are not with. Like an update of the Smiths classic "There is a Light that Never Goes Out," but without the starry-eyed sheen of adolescence, the chorus declares, "When I die I hope it's you I'm beside/ To die with her would be a worthless lie/ To die with her would be a worthless die/ To die together would be worth a try." The song's fade-out is a solo verse where the man sees an ambulance speed by and he secretly yearns that it's his long lost paramour, dead as a doornail, so he can visit her in the morgue and whisper to her corpse, "Finally! Quietly! Actually!/ I love you!" And, of course, it's all delivered in the South's trademark easy-listening pop style.
Come on, you can't tell me you don't find that romantic!
You seem unconvinced, which is sad, but I'll keep trying. This theory of mine, it ties into a lot of what I said about the Divine Comedy's A Short Album About Love, about how to portray the emotional weight of the way one human being feels for another, you have to portray the whole picture, the dirty bits and the contradictions. It's always been my belief that you can't fully understand one thing without spending some time with its opposite. In order to really get how chilly the freezing cold is, you've also had to know sweltering heat. Similarly, to appreciate the mind-blowing joy of being in love, you have to experience the crushing pain of rejection. As the cliché (and James lyric) goes, if you never see riches, you can live with being poor, and so, you can't define alone until you've been paired with other someones.
In order to write something as lathered in loving as "Prettiest Eyes," we also need songs like "Worthless Lie." It's about depth of feeling, about the breadth of emotion one allows oneself. The real extreme on Miaow is actually "Tattoo." It's got one of the breeziest melodies in the record, buoyed by a train-track drum rhythm (played with brushes) and a soft organ on the verses, a string section in the chorus. In counterpoint to its upbeat arrangement, it's got the saddest lyrics, beginning in a pit of hurting and rising to glorious anger. The narrator is wandering in his despair, searching for something. Eventually, he finds his place in a line at a tattoo parlor, standing with a load of other broken hearts looking to get the names of the ones who did them wrong inked on their skin. Only our boy, he finds a nice twist, a final sartorial revenge: "When they put the needle in me I'll scream your name in pain/ And I hope he spells 'you bastard' right."
It's not exactly the warmed cockles of growing old together, but it's as unabashed in its venom as "Prettiest Eyes" is in its caring. There's no irony in "Prettiest Eyes," no dodge. It's a straight-up expression of love. As a lyricist, Heaton flashes forward, imagining a couple who have spent sixty years of ups and downs together, and he sees how regardless of how many downs there were, they always land on the up. The signs of age, the "crows feet sitting on the prettiest eyes," are just a reminder that they arrived together, and that neither would trade any of the experiences for a return to youth. She's still as beautiful as the day he met her.
Most artists who aren't in the musical mainstream would shrink away from such forthright sentiment--unless it's sad. I'm not sure what scares "serious" creative types so much when it comes to being happy. La tristesse durera, absolutely, but there is more to life than that, so why not celebrate it?
I don't want to give you the wrong impression. Miaow is not entirely about love. Its scope is much broader, but love does provide us with a basis of approach, particularly that cynical romantic element. Elsewhere on the record, the band gets political. The album opener, "Hold On To What?" speaks of the plight of modern life. Existence is fraught with problems, and when we reach out, we are told to wait, to just hold on. But when there is nothing there to grasp, that's where the rejoinder of "Hold on to what?" comes in. Everyone is ready to go for help, but no one is gonna put that hand in themselves.
A similar message is on display in "Hidden Jukebox." Fingers are pointed--and not without a little sarcasm--at some of the sources of societal ills: organized religion, institutionalized prejudice, politicians whose exclusionary views are indulged. Heaton is calling for inclusion. The song on the hidden jukebox is the one the oppressors would rather not here, because it's lyrical thrust is that in the end, the world has more have-nots, more of us who are just people trying to get by, and maybe we should link arms and get by together, leaving the jackasses to themselves.
In the end, that's the theme I would likely divine from Miaow: despite the skepticism life engenders, we're all in this together. Even the cover art--be it the banned-by-RCA original with the oddball dogs getting to listen to music with the rest of the pack (and presumably, as the title of the album might suggest, the music is made by cats), or the replacement with German Shepherds adrift at sea--is about inclusion, about sludging through in tandem. No matter how many pessimistic turns of phrase Heaton may use, they ultimately add up to something far more hopeful.
Which takes us back to love, and my favorite track, "Especially For You." It's another song of inclusion, a call to arms for the outcasts and the desolate. "Only buy this if you're lonely," it begins, "Only listen if you're blue/ If you are married and you're happy/ This song is not to do with you." There are plenty of songs on the radio and in the record shops for people who have found what they are looking for. They have the sing-a-longs at their concerts, and their parties and holiday celebrations. They belong simply by belonging, their attachment to another leading to an attachment to all. So, where does that leave the unattached? This is where the Beautiful South comes in, ready to bring us together with a song of our own. We are all the same in our emotions ("It matters not the mouth that's singing"). Beneath our skin, we all feel. We buy it from the band--regardless of how sappy it is--because in the bigger scheme of the album, we realize they get it. Just like we do. When we cynically mutter, "No one will ever notice how special I am," we can add "Except the Beautiful South."
And if that's not love, I don't know what is.
NOTABLE B-SIDE: For both this album and the previous, 0898 Beautiful South, a lot of the b-sides were covers of an obscure British performer named Michael Greaves. He wrote country-inflected songs about odd characters, their struggles and heartaches, and all of the Beautiful South's versions are excellent. They really should do a full album of the stuff. The Miaow b-side that has always stood out for me, though, was "Size," one of the flips on "Prettiest Eyes." It's a slow, seductive tune sung by a man who is tired of being jilted by his woman and fed a load of lame excuses about it. "If size isn't everything/ and I'm half his size/ Then how come it's him that keeps the prize?" It's bitter and mean, infused with the self-satisfaction of someone who is fed up with lies. My favorite lines are, "My heart's in the right place/ and my heart is twice the size of his arse." I even referenced it in an old short story, "In Your Car," it stuck with me so much. I also have a soft-spot for put-down songs, and you can't go wrong with "You fuck long and you fuck slow/ But you fuck like a walrus smoking blow/ I'm too ashamed to scream you name." Something tells me he's really not interested in getting her back, he just wants to kick her on the way out.
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Current Soundtrack: "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me"
Current Mood: whatever
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2006 Jamie S. Rich