[The Mail On Sunday, 2004]
MY COLOURING BOOK
DRILL A HOLE IN THAT SUBSTRATE
AND TELL ME WHAT YOU SEE
IF EVER A man were punished by having the gods answer his prayers, it is that artist once again known as Prince. The dinky apostle of priapism successfully campaigned to “emancipate” himself from a major label, leaving him free to promiscuously bespatter his rapidly dwindling audience with one colossal shower of watery guff after another. A decade later, the single most influential figure in modern R&B is its forgotten man; while the beneficiaries of that influence, notably OutKast and The Neptunes, have eagerly scooped up the sales and acclaim he ceded.
Now Prince returns, via another conglomerate, looking to reclaim what he must feel is rightfully his. A revival, or a retreat? Musicology is as different as can be from his recent output - a dozen tight, compact pop-funk tunes, evidently designed to press buttons among those who treasure his astonishing run of creativity in the 1980s.
Occasionally, a virtuoso long since off the boil will produce truly great work: Dylan's Time Out Of Mind; the American Recordings series of Johnny Cash. More often, decent but uninspired offerings (think David Bowie) will be hailed as masterpieces by over-enthusiastic advocates. Pleased as we might be to have the old Prince back, it would be self deluding to suggest that this album ranks with his finest. Certainly, it's a return to form: the form of path-finding early records such as For You and Controversy (although there's nothing here I would trade for the mucky fever-dreams of Dirty Mind.) Still, if Musicology serves as a reminder of black music's debt to Prince, then that's reason enough for it to exist.
Another reputation due for a rethink is Abba's. With compilation packages, a slew of tribute acts and a thriving stage musical, Abba constitute a flourishing, self-contained music industry second only to The Beatles. That's not all the two bands have in common. Alongside that of the Bee Gees, their catalogues make up, in effect, the folk music of our time, the tunes we all instinctively respond to. Abba merit, if not the degree, then at least the type of critical reverence accorded The Beatles. They don't get it, though, because their devotees are found at hen parties and karaoke nights rather than aftershow parties and quiz nights.
It is Abba's fate to be misconstrued as tacky and fluffy. They had plenty of lapses, but their best songs (Voulez-Vous, The Winner Takes It All, The Day Before You Came) can encapsulate in four minutes the futility and hollowness, the poetic desolation and very Scandinavian melancholy, that their compatriot Ingmar Bergman would need two hours of torpid celluloid to convey. No-one in pop, not even Leonard Cohen or Nick Drake, has struck closer at loneliness and loss. But because they did it in bad trousers, to a disco beat, they might as well not have bothered.
That overtone of sorrow provides the one Abba-like aspect discernible in Agnetha Fältskog's My Colouring Book, the first new music from any of the foursome in donkey's years. It's something of a cabaret turn - a collection of covers, all from the 1960s - and its timing couldn't be better, considering the current vogue for supper-club throwbacks.
Fans who recognise in Abba only the bounce and the glitz will be perplexed by this labour of love. They will hear little that's familiar in the arrangements, which echo Nelson Riddle, Phil Spector and Lee Hazelwood to the point of pastiche; or in the studiedly inflected vocal emulation of Dusty Springfield and Dionne Warwick - no consonant left behind.
It's not a bad record, by any means, although it has moments which are every bit as camp and corny as Abba themselves are mistakenly held to be. Faltskog is in undeniably fine voice. People who enjoy cocktail-lounge retro - a sizeable segment of the population, just now - may take to it. I'll stick with my well-worn vinyl copy of The Visitors.
The week's choice item from out of left field is Drill A Hole In That Substrate And Tell Me What You See by Jim White. This slice of American Gothic touches on all the usual themes (trailer parks. . . dark underbelly. . . drifters. . . broken dreams. . . yada yada yada) yet manages to infuse them with a deliciously moody ambience - and simultaneously to rest as easily on the ears as any nouveau light-jazz crooning. Think Ryan Adams sidling through the Tom Waits songbook at 4am and you won't go far wrong.
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