Monday, 3 September 2012

D CDs #498: This Single Point In Time

Number #498 of the Rolling Stones "Greatest Albums of all Time!" list that we're using (having eschewed the most recent iteration because I'm interested to see how many of the discs there were clearly thrown in due to contemporary hype), it's the Stone Roses' debut.

Four albums into this series (having accidentally covered #492 first, like an idiot), we come to multiple milestones in the list: the first album I've heard, the first album I've owned, and the first album I've loved almost unconditionally.  And even when I say "almost", I just mean that you could remove "Elizabeth My Dear" from the track list and literally no-one in the world would mind.

So let's do that, then.  "Elizabeth..." is a pointless minute-long re-write of "Scarborough Fair", in which the original lyrics about going to buy herbs and telling some woman you're friends with her ex-squeeze have been replaced with an entirely uninteresting anti-monarchy rant.  "I won't rest 'til she's lost her throne", Ian Brown tells us solemnly, which is pretty funny when you remember he rested for five fucking years before he even bothered getting round to a second album, which John Squire did all the work for anyway.  "It's curtains for you, Elizabeth, my dear" he tells us, followed by the snip of a silenced pistol, perhaps added for fear that the song would prove too difficult to interpret without sound effects.

In short, it's one of the kinds of song I dislike intellectually rather than emotionally; staking out a once-controversial position without depth or subtlety.  "God Save The Queen" had bite in 1977.  In mid 1989, just 30 months before the start of Ms. Windsor-Gl├╝cksburg's "annus horribilis", this is tepid and pointless, like those early 21st century Madonna gigs where she despoiled various Catholic icons [1].  Either do something really shocking, or have an intelligent point, or fuck off.

Let's consider our new version of The Stone Roses - all of 59 seconds shorter - then.  Well, , now we're talking.  The album kicks off with possibly the best four opening tracks of any record I've ever heard, and finishes just as well with the sublime double of "This is the One" and "I am the Resurrection".  It's tough to describe exactly why these six songs are so wonderful - though the strange move of writing one of the best guitar-pop tunes of all time and then just playing it backwards for the very next song is a move of astonishing confidence that works out beautifully - both because it's easier to work out how things fail than how they succeed, and because after listening to them so many times in the last decade I'm just too close to the subject.

One can gain some clues, though, by listening to Second Coming and figuring out why that album by and large doesn't work.  A lot of it is in the change to Brown's delivery; more of a sneering snarl than the soaring melancholy of, say, "Waterfall".  Squire's riffs are no less crisp, but here his guitar grumbles rather than chimes or echoes.  Those are obvious changes, though.  Less noted but just as important is the relegation of the rhythm section, who seem to simply set the pace where once they built atmosphere.  Just listen to the space they carve out as the album lopes through its long, sublime intro, accompanied by the slow sighs of an electronic breeze.  This isn't a song, it's a place where a song lives when you're not listening to it.  We don't play it, we visit.  It's ninety seconds before Squire first moves his plectrum, and the song needs every one of them.

They play a similar trick in the early stages of "This is the One", and join up with Squire's endlessly inventive chicanery at the close of "I am the Resurrection".  There's a distinct feeling here of four separate artists, all at the absolute top of their game.  Fairly or not, Second Coming sounds like three guys willing to humour John Squire. 

Crucially, it's also the album in which the band sound overly arrogant.  That might be a strange accusation to level at their sophomore effort, considering their first disc ends with a song in which Brown announces "I am the resurrection and I am the life!" - now that's how you provoke people - but what makes it bearable the first time around is partially their total willingness to fess up to what's going on here ("I wanna be adored", indeed), but mainly the fact that they're every bit as good as they're claiming to be.  The certainly of one's own brilliance almost always comes back to bite you in the end - and it's worth noting even here that the middle of the album is merely entertaining and little more - but in these moments, stretched across two studios in London and one in Wales, there's just no way to claim they didn't earn the right to front like all hell.
Nine and a half tentacles.

[1] Someone at the time (I've long forgotten who) pointed out that if she really wanted to be provocative, Madonna should switch all the Christian iconography in her stage show to their closest Islamic equivalents.  This would, indeed, have created uproar.  It also would have demonstrated how tasteless the whole enterprise was.  I'd have objected to actually doing it, because I'm not at all comfortable with the idea of a white girl from Michigan insulting a religion she isn't intimately familiar with, but that's just one more reason to drop the idea entirely.


BigHead said...

Second Coming is vastly superior.

BigHead said...

Which reminds me, I haven't listened to it for a MILLION YEARS and I need to remedy that right now.

SpaceSquid said...

Glad I could help, you crazy fool, you.

Tomsk said...

Say what you like about Elizabeth My Dear, but it wouldn't have been a proper jubilee-year reunion without it in the set. And with all the monarchy worship around this year it genuinely was a little shocking (in particular Brown's hilariously sour attack on the royals beforehand)

SpaceSquid said...

Fair point, though 23 years to get around to being of any value is poor going even in our current context.