PERMANENT RECORDS: HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE SOME KIND OF BEAUTIFUL?
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.
32. P.M. DAWN - OF THE HEART, OF THE SOUL, AND OF THE CROSS: THE UTOPIAN EXPERIENCE (1991)
Personnel: Prince Be & DJ Minute Mix
Producer: P.M. Dawn/ Label: Gee Street/Island
I don't know what you'd call last week's entry. A fictional essay? A confessional half-truth? A lie wrapped in the wink of honesty? Whatever it was, it makes for an interesting stepping stone in this series. I've always looked at this as a journey, wanting to let one week suggest another, the ideas tumbling after each other, like those tandem skydivers that drop from a plane and form a circle, hand locked in hand as they freefall.
In writing about Spandau Ballet, I created a portrait of someone out of place, out of time, one step to the left of everyone around him. He saw Spandau Ballet as kindred spirits, a focal point for the things he felt made him different. In itself, the choice may reveal how out of step I may be. Spandau Ballet is so rarely considered cool, so I've drawn my line in the sand to say, "I like it, and I don't care about your cool. This is one of my very favorite records."
P.M. Dawn could inspire the same reaction. Last week's portrait could have just as easily been about their main man, Prince Be. You wanna talk about being out of step with everyone around you? How about a hiphop duo who sing about spirituality, love, dancing, and other bizarre concepts? Keep in mind, their debut album promoted the utopian experience a little over a year after Public Enemy told us to fear a black planet, and their biggest hit topped the charts twelve months before Dr. Dre released The Chronic and changed mainstream rap forever. The title of the album alone tells you that you're not dealing with average concerns here. Of the Heart, Of the Soul, and Of the Cross. Just what the hell does that mean? These guys were so far from the pack, the cover photograph shows them in the ice fields of some remote location. If Dr. Dre was America, P.M. Dawn was Antarctica.
The band's name alone is somewhat an explanation of their contradictory position in the rap game. Loosely translate it as Night Morning, or the Morning of Night. It's every state of being, it's yin and yang. Their garb and their vibe were vaguely hippie-ish, with paisley shirts and peace symbols matching the African-inflected hiphop fashion of the day. Their closest compatriots could maybe be considered De La Soul, and P.M. Dawn even sample "Potholes in My Lawn," but De La had just released De La Soul Is Dead a couple of months before (to give you further idea where the rap game was at the time), and one imagines that had they seen P.M. Dawn at a party, even those guys, what with their attempts to now discard the D.A.I.S.Y. Age, would have pretended not to know Be and DJ Minute Mix.
Not that P.M. Dawn would care. The second track on Of the Heart... is "Reality Used to Be a Friend of Mine," a tribute to their disassociated state. Lyrically, reality could be the concept itself or a girl, and Prince Be laments the loss of his connection to both; musically, however, the track practically celebrates having broken the bounds. Built on a piano loop that I swear sounds like it was taken from the Peanuts cartoons, "Reality" is a rump shaker. You might be nuts, sir, but you can dance like Franklin at the end of A Charlie Brown Christmas. "Now I'm known as the maniac man!" On that track, Prince Be says, "I figured life would just hand me bliss, and it's an important statement for the idealist trying to make music about his views of utopia: if life fails to live up to his expectations, he doesn't change his expectations, he alters life. It's never easy, there is always regret and there is always struggle, but it's a battle worth fighting for how hard it's won.
The next track is sort of the instruction on letting loose oneself. "Picture you, picture me," he says by way of an opening on "Paper Doll." It's an '80s soul ballad, smoothly transitioning from the verses with Prince Be's soft rapping to a plaintive chorus sung by Be as a mid-range croon. His voice is one of P.M. Dawn's most formidable weapons. Even today, someone who can rap and sing with equal skill is still a rarity.
"Paper Doll" is essentially a suggestion that one should become less substantial. Forget about how all humans are linked on this plane, consider the greater cosmos. "Life surrounds what's presumed as wise/ It wouldn't be wise until the fist uncurls." This, presumably, is part of the Of the Soul portion of the titular equation. The soulful elements have a strong hold on most of the tracks. "In the Presence of Mirrors" details man's internal conflicts, and once again reinforces we are all one ("I come face to face with you/ Which is me"). "Comatose" is a darker portrait, the title referring to the state most people live their lives in.
Of the three pieces of the puzzle, the one that is least obvious and, consequently, the most subversive, is probably Of the Cross. There are passing references to faith in songs like "To Serenade a Rainbow" ("Agape compels me to love you...Father, I talk to you for peace of mind"), but it's never so up front as to be in your face. It's not that the religious element is the least important, it's more that it informs all of the band's choices, making it a part of the other elements in a way they are not part of each other. It's religion as it's supposed to be, a way of trying to live better but not an excuse to hide. "Even After I Die" is the one song devoted entirely to this religious pursuit. Its placement on Of the Heart... can't be accidental. "Even After I Die" is the absolute center: six songs precede it and six songs follow it, making it track 7, a divine number. Built on a soft acoustic strum, the track is Prince Be posing his personal existence against the existence of God: "A question mark on a question mark/ And insecurities connect my parts/ I thought you are me and I am you." His doubts taking shape as auditory abstraction--a synthesizer squeal, a quick twinge on an electric guitar. All he can do is accept what he isn't sure of--"I guess I'll never know, it'd probably cut me like a knife"--and continue his struggle.
Because if he gave up his struggle, if he let the cross become a shield from life, then there would certainly be no Of the Heart. P.M. Dawn's romantic spirit is what most people know. Their #1 single was "Set Adrift on Memory Bliss," a poppy ballad that samples "True" by our Spandau boys. (Tony Hadley was even in the video.) It's not a ballad for a specific love, though, it's a rumination on a dream lover, on the endless search for the ideal. Call her the Utopian Girl. The song refers to her as "the thought of Mrs. Princess Who?" and suggests it's like a dream he can't quite remember, "Subterranean by design,/ I wonder what I would find if I met you." The bliss of memory is thinking on this perfection once tasted and trying to find it again.
Maybe he does, too, a couple of songs later. Maybe she's the "you" he can see in "On a Clear Day." It's another of those songs that could be about the Heart, or it could be another one about Soul. In fact, most of the songs on the disc sound like love songs, whether they are or not. "Paper Doll" certainly comes across as being about lovers conjoined, not a search for some kind of metaphysical connection. "Reality Used to be a Friend of Mine," again, is just as much about an estranged paramour as it is the fabric of existence. Like I said, most people think of P.M. Dawn as a romantic band. Even I had in my mind that all the songs from The Utopian Experience were about love. Of the Heart must be the most important because it's first, right?
Yes, but it's not a narrow definition of love. It's more grand.
And yet, The Utopian Experience doesn't always add up. "Comatose," for instance, is almost angry, like the duo is ready to give up on their fellow man. "As lost as a meal that's pushed to a panther/ I keep my eyes on those who pass by/ They look to P.M. Dawn the quest for the answer/ Mercy mercy me...till I see/ The end of the human race is grand prix." There is a hedonistic element to the song, the sweat and rhythm of a nightclub, the undulating Sly Stone sample, and it's hard not to think the duo isn't enjoying it. Strangely, the attitude fits them well. It doesn't feel put on. Neither does "Shake," the house track with Todd Terry, which is no more than a halleluiah over pelvic thrusts. The conglomeration of all these disparate and often incomprehensible elements reminds me a lot of Prince, and it would not surprise me if Prince Be's moniker is a definite nod to an idol. There are also the uses of letters and numbers in place of words, a love of wailing electric guitars, and on "The Beautiful," Be even says he's sending a "purple valentine." His diminutive highness' fingerprints are all over this record..
P.M. Dawn would be nothing without their contradictions. "The Beautiful" closes the album (and somehow manages to get away with sampling its melody from the Beatles' "Baby You're a Rich Man"), and it contains the revealing stanza "Once more my feelings have succeeded in confusing me/ But what's most amusing is/ I like the way it looks." It's more heroic, in its way, accepting one's outsider status and not fighting against it, knowing you're not one of the comatose and not really looking to join them.
Nowhere is that willful quest to understand more pronounced than on "A Watcher's Point of View (Don't 'Cha Think)." It's a dervish of a song, with Prince Be's most aggressive delivery on the album. The beat is pummeling, never deviating but pounding consistently from point A to point B. (I almost said "to Prince Be," but that's too cute.) "He who thinks, thinks for himself" is its first line, and that would sum it up nicely if the chorus wan't more illuminating:
Problems of the world, lovers, girls, and things of that nature bound to break my heart
They all show different sides of me, they're all wrapped up inside of me...
I feel certain awe for those who fall to find out they're in the shadows in the stars
Even from a watcher's point of view.
P.M. Dawn recognize their own position as observers, knowing that the world at large is perhaps too harsh for them; even so, they refuse to remove themselves absolutely. They can't be complete voyeurs, they will always have empathy. "Cause he who learns the rules of wisdom/ Without transforming it to daily life/ Is a bad condition of contradiction"-- you can't give up on yourself, but instead you have to find a way to make living work. Be you the boy at the dance who doesn't understand how to make the feelings of a three-minute pop song transform into an ongoing relationship or a paisley-wearing Christian rapper competing for chart positions with hardcore gangstas, you have to stay true to your heart, your soul, and whatever larger power you put your faith in, or you'll never find the perfection you seek.
Of the Heart, Of the Soul, Of the Cross: The Utopian Experience, the P.M. into the Dawn. Not conflicting elements, but one growing into the other, the darkness giving way to sunrise.
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Current Soundtrack: Primal Scream, Riot City Blues
Current Mood: restless
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2006 Jamie S. Rich