Sorry for the lack of posts recently – I’ve had a touch of post-viral depression. I *will* spend all next week posting about Batman along with my usual posts though. (The couple of weeks after will be light again though as I’ll be visiting the in-laws in the land of dial-up). So expect two posts tomorrow – Batman and Big Finish.
& by Kristian Hoffman is one of those albums that everyone who hears it loves, but which flies under the radar. On the very few occasions I’ve spoken about it to anyone who’s heard it, they’ve always said “Wow, I love that album, but I don’t know anyone else who’s heard it!”
Hoffman is someone who’s been on the fringes of success for decades – he was in the obscure art-punk band the Mumps in the 70s, and since then has worked with everyone from Rufus Wainwright to Carolyn Edwards – and &, his third ‘solo’ album, is actually an album of duets that pulls collaborators from throughout the world of interesting music. Hoffman’s style is closest to the glam-punk of 70s Sparks, but he also has elements of powerpop, prog-pop of the ELO/Wings variety and a healthy helping of pre-rock pop. Possibly the easiest way to describe his music is to imagine Sondheim or Cole Porter as produced by Jeff Lynne, and while & is his third album it feels in many ways like a first album – it’s a collection of songs written over several decades, Anyone But You, for one, dating back to the 1970s.
The list of collaborators on the album could easily double as a list of the most interesting still-working musicians alive in 2002 (when the album was released) – Stew, Darian Sahanaja of the Wondermints, Russel Mael of Sparks, Van Dyke Parks, Rufus Wainwright – combined with some choices that one could see as being chosen for camp value ( Maria McKee, El Vez (“The Mexican Elvis”), Paul ‘Pee Wee Herman’ Rubens) but who actually all turn in performances every bit as good as the more critically acclaimed performers.
From the opening “Gimme Some Lovin'” riff of Devil May Care, with Hoffman affecting an almost Dylanesque nasal voice (very different from the rest of the album) doubled by Russel Mael’s vibrato falsetto and backed by crunchy Big Star guitars, it’s obvious that this is going to be a musically interesting album, but it’s when that song gets to the middle eight that Hofmann’s real songwriting strengths start to show, with the line “Some postulate reward if you should mortify the flesh”.
Hoffman is one of the most articulate lyricists I’ve heard in years, with a huge working vocabulary and a wicked sense of humour. The album is just full of quotable lines – “Devil may care but I am disinclined to lend belief/to any square who spends his time bemoaning just how brief it is”, “It’s like a hideous chorus by the post-Mary Wilson Supremes”, “We sensed by scent that this brief sentiment was overripe”, “No sex in heaven – where do I sign?”, “This passion play was engineered, but when the mutant sheep appeared,”.
I’m more of a music person than a lyric person, so when even *I* am quoting huge chunks of the lyrics you know they’re special, but the music more than matches them. Get It RIght This Time, for example, has a first verse that could come from one of Noel Coward’s better musicals, all sparse strings and elegance, before going into a big musical-theatre chorus. The second verse then duplicates the arrangement of the first, but with Abba-esque piano, before we have two instrumental variations of the melody, one a perfect baroque pastiche, all piccolo trumpet and harpsichord, the other shredding 80s hair-metal guitar, before a return to the chorus and a final “Little Help From My Friends” tag. But none of this is in quotes, it just feels like the natural place for the music to go.
The album’s full of things like that, and even the less musically ambitious material is still well worth a listen. Anyone But You, with Stew and Heidi of the Negro Problem, for example, is one of only four or five guitar-based pop songs recorded in the last decade to be worth a damn.
And while the album is nothing so gauche as a ‘concept album’ (except in the sense that every song is a collaboration) there are themes that recur over and over again. Religion comes up in almost every song – obviously in song titles like God If Any Only Knows, No Sex In Heaven and Devil May Care, but also in lines like “Scarecrow, those who seek metaphor compare/Scarecrow, that other man left hanging there/But it seems to me/That comes too easily” and the whole of Anyone But You. There’s also a carnality to the lyrics, and an examination of sexuality and what sexuality means in modern life, and especially what it means to be gay – Scarecrow, the song just quoted, is about the murder of Mathew Shephard, a gay man murdered in Wyoming by homophobic fuckwits ten years ago, and is a haunting counterbalance to the more upbeat lines like “gonna put the ‘oo’ in the human condition” that predominate.
The best song by far is the ballad Sex In Heaven, one of the best ballads I’ve heard in years, whose lyrics deserve quoting in full:
It’s heaven sent, this miracle soprano you employ
That makes an angel of a boy, earthbound.
My soul took wing upon the sound.
I guess I still can’t face the implications of this gift.
There’s something pagan in the lift — airborne.
And why should soul from flesh be torn?
That’s what it costs to buy a note so pure and high
and so divine: no sex in heaven.
The bottom line: no sex in heaven. Where do I sign?
Then came the man whose eyes professed the love that we had sought;
a love that’s never to be caught or held.
Some ancient pact can’t be dispelled. What’s the surprise?
The storied sacrifice is often told: that this perfection must be cold,
and hard — where once we joined by scalpel scarred.
What gimpy God aflame with jealous rage decreed that you
Like him must be unwhole; allowed to yearn?
But if the need that you profess is once returned,
You slap it down! (If I should ask, and I always ask.)
I guess I still can’t help the sickened impulse to admire
the score that this castrati choir translates
that soothes as it emasculates.
What amazes me about this album is that it’s one of the *very* few albums I’ve heard in recent years where *everything* is well-crafted. The songs are absolutely superb – they remind me of Elvis Costello at his best or a less grating Randy Newman, oblique and intelligent with lines echoing and commenting on each other (for example in Revert To Type there’s a line about “the island of Dr Morose”, which is quite a good pun in itself, but is also an echo of the ‘mutant sheep’ earlier in the song), the arrangements are imaginative, ranging over almost every form of popular music from Sparks to Cole Porter to the Beach Boys, and the performances are stunning (my favourite is Stew’s full-throated roar on Anyone But You, but there’s not a bad performance on there).
& can be bought on CD and MP3 from CDBaby, or downloaded from eMusic. His first two solo albums, and a compilation of the Mumps’ 70s recordings, are also available from the same sources and well worth getting, but this is his masterpiece. He’s apparently also working on an album produced by Nick Walusko from the Wondermints, which I can’t wait to hear…