Underground Map

Steven Ball continues his mission to reinvent the song form on his own terms, informed by much musical history and sparked by ideas that may have filtered through his knowledge of modern art and avant-garde film-making. When I say “reinvent”, he might also have it mind to “deconstruct” or even to “subvert” popular song. The most prominent aspect of this plan is his approach to singing, which is to create a wispy washed-out breathy ambience, removing about 99% of any human sensibility, and appearing massively detached from emotional engagement of any kind. Right away I expect many readers would be turned away by such a package, but you really need to hear Subsongs (LINEAR OBSESSIONAL RECORDINGS LOR095) before you come to your own conclusions, if any. Admittedly we too were slow to hear the sense behind Ball’s scheme, but Life Of Barrymore somehow made a connection, drilling quite deeply into a very serious topic in a conceptual piece where the emotional “coldness” of the song delivery made perfect sense, and indeed was integral part of whole. Same observations on today’s spin.

‘Inside’ combines the Bowie of Blackstar (lost, near-dead) with an emptied-out ghost of a tune, effortlessly creating the sense of deep alienation that Scott Walker can only dream of with his wasteful, over-worked projects such as The Drift. ‘Off Off On’ is almost the last word in stripped-down Cold Wave – minimal synth just got even more minimal. It’s probably the love song (or suicide note) of an android, written in binary code. ‘Subsong’ takes the archaic singer-songwriter setup (voice and guitar) and performs it in ultra-stilted fashion at a painfully slow tempo – Leonard Cohen and Neil Young rethought for the post-modern smartphone-inflected mind. The lyric here even allows itself the trick of commenting on its own construction, laying bare the mechanics of songwriting (much like Peter Gidal did with Structuralist film-making). Yet it’s also a hauntingly beautiful piece; the spare use of a forlorn field recording (busker playing in a shopping mall? Actually a cellist under Blackfriars Bridge) ought to make you cry.

‘Of The Yard (After Terry Ball)’ will cement the deal if you’ve made it this far; the longest 15 minutes in show business; suicide-inducing existential song with two minor chords; imagery suggests we’re all labouring in a prison yard on a chain gang breaking stones, a bleak vision of the human condition; Jacques Brel rethought as a schematic infogram. Lyric here comes direct from notebooks of said Terry Ball. And if that doesn’t get you busy knitting your own noose, tune into ‘Garage/Band’, a song which laments the futility and boredom of being a rock star while lashing the hypocrisy of a dole-queue band “pretending to be poor” and concluding “we were never really free” with a noted of resigned bitterness. Phew. Personally I hope this isn’t a direct dig at Storm Bugs, the 1980s post-punk duo of which Ball was (and still is) one half, but the profound disillusionment behind this song will be recognisable to any listener over 40 years of age who surveys the current music landscape and wonders what became of all the radical ideas and promising futures which the pages of the NME promised us circa 1982.

All the above indicates to me that the time is right for a complete remake of the entire Ziggy Stardust LP, written from the point of view of Mick Ronson after he’d been abandoned by his boss. Ball would be just the man for the job. It would make a perfect companion piece to Through A Telephone Box Darkly (a.k.a. Suicide Suite, the 2001 CDR by Philip Sanderson. (11/10/2017)

03/06/2018 update:

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