PERMANENT RECORDS: THE NATURE OF UNCARVED BLOCKS IS HOW TO DESCRIBE WHAT'S HARD TO DESCRIBE
(Or, I'm Emotionally Raped By Jesus)
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.
25. MANSUN - SIX (1998)
Personnel: Paul Draper, vocals & rhythm guitar; Dominic Chad, guitar & backing vocals; Stove King, bass; Andi Rathbone, drums
Producer: Paul Draper & Mark "Spike" Stent / Label: Parlophone
NOTE: This is written specifically about the UK edition of this album; the North American release is inferior, with its tracklist altered and cover changed.
At the beginning of "Inverse Midas," the fourth song on Mansun's sophomore album Six (lots of numbers here), Paul Draper softly croons over a lilting piano riff, "Everybody helps me make my own mistakes/ If I'm left alone I'd make them anyway." Guitarist Dominic Chad has provided his cohort with a marvelous lyric, and it's given particular import by Draper's dramatic delivery, more lounge bar than bedroom pose. It's not really passing the buck in the first line, he takes personal responsibility all the way. It's just that at the same time he's willing to acknowledge that people are shit and more often than not drag you down.
It's also a pretty strong entry point for an album that has been and will be misunderstood, debated, kicked around, loathed, and loved. The British quartet was striking pretty far out on its own with Six, exploring the vast terrain of ideas in their collective heads and leaving nothing untouched. If at any time the band was going to live and die by their own merits, it would be on this album. Yes, they could fall under the weight of personal error, but that gave them as much right to crow about any success they pulled from it. To my mind, that success was large.
The placement of Six in this series is interesting to consider. It's part of a cycle of three. If the Dashboard Confessional EP So Impossible can be held up on one end as a high example of simplicity in approach, than Love's Da Capo is the middle. That record has an A-side full of short, straight-forward rock songs, while it's B-side is the long, ambitious, and challenging "Revelation." Dashboard leads into Love, Love leads into Six, which is like the principles of "Revelation" stretched across an entire CD. There is nothing simple or straightforward about Six, except maybe the notion that nothing is restrained. There are thirteen tracks, but without staring at the display on your player, you're not always going to know where one ends and the next begins. The tunes don't so much stop as fold into the song that follows, and quite regularly, within one song there are so many change-ups you're going to think you've moved on until Mansun somehow finds their way back to the beginning. It's almost like a Rube Goldberg-approach to songwriting. You won't be sure where the egg will roll next, you just take it on faith that it will somehow end up in the frying pan.
Before you even crack the wrapping on the jewel case, you know that Six won't be easy. The cover is so full of references, it would almost take its own book to explicate. A stained-glass window with a design of a unicycle, dancing Victorians, the backend of a zebra, Winnie the Pooh, chess--just to name a few. Front and center are several books lined up on either side of a man in a blank mask reading from a tome that contains the lyrics to Mansun's song "Legacy," but the words begin to fade out at the end of the page. Could it be that they disappear as he reads, or one word materializes as he reads the one that precedes it? Inside the booklet, on the first page and the last, the band reproduces the books from his table at a larger size so we can read the spines. Stack one, which is laid flat, has something called Life is a Series of Compromises (later referenced in the title track), 1984, the autobiography of an actor who played Doctor Who (Tom Baker, who also does a bit of voiceover on the album), the Marquis de Sade, The Book of Mormon, and a book called The Bible Code. The second stack has the books standing up straight: The House at Pooh Corner, a misspelled version of Dianetics (the title and author name altered as a comment on their fraudulent nature or to avoid litigation?), The Schizoid Man, Paint It Black (a Rolling Stones bio, perhaps?), and a volume with no title at all.
Here we are, not even into the music yet, and we are overwhelmed with references, wondering what it all means. Is there something to be said about why one stack is lying down, and one standing? Are we even supposed to be worrying so much about it? Could some of it be more obvious than we want to give Mansun credit for? I know that guitarist Dominic Chad, who looks a lot like the mythical lost Rolling Stone member Brian Jones, bought Jones' old house which also happened to be A.A. Milne's home, so could the Pooh and Stones books merely be a nod to that?
In any case, as I said, the cover is serving as signal that Six is intended to be a puzzler. And yet, to say it's not easy is actually a bit off, I think. Yes, it's not particularly simple to sort out everything Draper is blathering about, but at the same time, it's not a terribly challenging record to enjoy. The real magic trick of Six, for all its abrupt time signatures and overloaded lyrical content, is that it's an absolute pleasure to listen to. I never get the sense that they just got lucky, that a shift in sound was a happy accident, or that the car might go off the road, that the band will lose the plot any second. Mansun are in complete control throughout, and the key to getting Six is not wrestling against it. You should listen to it almost like you might listen to one of Brian Eno's ambient records: sit back and let it move over you. Be active in it, but don't fight it. Musical body surfing: between waves, float, and when the waves come, ride them.
By that token, I'm not going to try to map out the lyrical journey of Six. If it would take me a whole book to dissect the album cover, it would take me two more to deal with the words inside. (Handily, Draper and co. have structured the record into two parts, along with the interlude, "Witness to a Murder," the song spoken by the ex-Dr. Who. Another ode to the evil of humanity, it begins, "All my life/ What I mistook for friendly pats on the back/ Were really the hands that pushed me/ Further and further down." I know. Hate people much? Yet, strangely true....) Find me another album where the lyrics contain references to the Jabberwocky, Stanley Kubrick staging the moon landing, Confucius, the Shroud of Turin, Marx, almost every book previously mentioned, and pay-per-view television. I dare you.
So, side-stepping the actual words, what are we left with? Emotions. Sensations. Six may be a heady brew, the product of four boys sifting through their intellectual miasma, but they don't trip over their own brains on the way and forget that it's also about heart. Music is feeling. What's confounding, however, is that it's really one emotion. There are no love songs on six, no happy songs, nothing about your mum or the rain or sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. The musical approach is all over the place--we have melancholy washes on "Legacy," the short punk spikes of the first part of "Being a Girl," the desperation of "Shotgun," classical references on "Fall Out", the wailing of "Television"--but the thematic intent is unchanging.
Here the books become handy. What a lot of the titles have in common is that they indicate a search--for oneself, for childhood, for freedom, for a new kind of kick. The ones not mentioned in the lyrics are good keys. Orwell's 1984 provides the sense of doom, the satellites that attack us in "Serotonin" and the authority we bow to in "Six," that something is watching us--and maybe the first stack of books is flat because they are set, whereas the second stack is standing because that's where the movement is. The blank book is the one we write ourselves once we escape from being The Schizoid Man. In searching for our place in the universe, we are conflicted and contradictory. We are an individual, but our legacy is "a sea of faces just like me." In "Fall Out," Draper denies questioning anything in one verse, speaks of philosophy in the next. We are masters of our own destiny, but we are the inverse midas that turns gold to shit, and sometimes it's the rest of the world that shoves us along (and as on "Television," sometimes it's our TV). In "Negative," "...things are closing in on you/ Not so far away as they may seem."
And, of course, the pinnacle of the desire to change oneself is the epic final track, "Being A Girl. At 8:00 minutes, it gives Love's "Revelation" a run for its money. I am a man, but I feel like "being a girl, and my life never tasted sweeter." The contradictions aren't over. For life being sweeter, we're also told "A frog it cannot comprehend the sea/ Nor me happiness," and the last new lyrics of the song (and the album) are the enigmatic lines, "Never been informed there must be poor/ Or the rich won't be rich no more." For all the confusion, though, there is a sense of the schizoid man sorting it all out. If I can acknowledge that there is this otherness to me, maybe I can join with it, redefine myself, put my title on the blank spine of that book. Certainly there is a bit more sarcasm and irony to "Being A Girl" ("And I judge myself by the adverts I see/ My deodorant hides the real me/ These things elevate me above animals"), we're freed from the heavy shit to be the person we think we are.
The back cover of Six is the same masked figure from the front, but now he is in a smaller room, in his bed and pajamas, watching his TV (which we know is evil, but still, it's late, so give a poor man a break). The image from the front is now a memory, framed and hung on his wall. He may be alone, but it's more tranquil. There is no ceiling, and behind him is the sky and the moon (is Stan K. up there?). We can rest content in our possibilities. In front of us is the world, is TV, the things we may abandon, but now we know we can.
Or, Mansun have pulled a big prank and delivered me an album that's full of shit in order to trick me into writing long pieces on it that show me being full of shit, as well. It doesn't matter, because I'd win anyway. The biggest freedom we have is the freedom to be as full of as much shit as we want to be.
That, my friends, is what elevates us above animals.
NOTEABLE B-SIDE: On the second part of the "Legacy" single, Mansun have slid in a clever little joke of a punk song. "GSOH" is a continual repeat of a personal ad, woven around phones ringing and distorted conversations. Despite the main demand being a good sense of humor, the punch line comes at the end of the ad: "Looks aren't important, must have a photograph." Which, on the third time through, tapers out on a scream, as it becomes "fucking photograph." It's a light-hearted song, a display of a good sense of humor all on its own, and a nice counterpoint to the gravitas of Six.
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Current Soundtrack: Love, Four Sail
Current Mood: content
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2006 Jamie S. Rich