VII. Picking up the pieces of my sweet shattered dreams

In  review: Gordon Lightfoot, Sundown (WEA, 1974).

I really doubt that Gordon Lightfoot has ever been ‘cool’.  As he has said himself, he came out of the folk revival of the (very) early 1960s.  Despite some cosmetic changes to his style over the years, he has remained true to his vision.  Sundown, one of a host of studio albums Lightfoot put out in the 1970s is very constant.  It’s a disc of ballads with strong country undertones.  And you could just stop there.

But when you start listening to the songs, their lyrics, you start to realise these are no steel gee-tar bourbon swillers.  Lightfoot is singing about love, yes, but he’s singing about unrequited love. And he’s singing about it well.

The pairing of the longing and regret in the music mixes so well.  The arrangements and orchestrations are balanced perfectly to give maximum impact.  An edge exists to this album, though.  ‘Sundown’, Lightfoot’s best selling single, is about toxic love and an extramarital entanglement from which no love can come.

There are more upbeat tracks, of course. But even in the most downcast there is resilience and reflection. Love may not have worked out.  Love may have been cruel.  But love is a window into yourself.  Your inner being, Lightfoot implies, needs your love as much as any other individual.  Indeed, only through finding a level in our own emtional life can we ever hope to access honestly someone else’s. As the lines from ‘Carefree Highway’ states, ‘living is just bein’ satisfied / With knowing ‘ I got no one left to blame’.

This all combines into a high impact album that is yet subtle.  It asks you some direct questions but then leaves you to ponder a few potentially unpalatable answers.


VI. I’m fighting things I cannot see

In this review: Suzanne Vega, Suzanne Vega (A&M, 1985).

Suzanne Vega was just always out of earshot for me.  My friends listened to her and she influenced the music I liked.  With the exception of the inclusion of a track or two of hers on a mixtape here and there, it wasn’t until the DNA remix of ‘Tom’s Diner’ got some major radio play in the mid-90s that I began to think about her in her own right.

Listening to her self-titled 1985 debute, it is very clear that she started as she meant to I find the clarity of her vision to be really amazing, especially for a first release.  There is something about the clear, intellectual vocals paired with just-complex-enough instrumental backing that sounds timeless.  In an age of overblown stadium rock, Suzanne Vega stands out for its intimacy.

But if intimate it is not small or insular.  The topics she covers are actually quite bold.  A strong feminist, or at the very least empowered, theme comes across.  Love is complex, but it is also not about objectification.  In ‘Marlene on the Wall’, one of her best known tracks, Vega deals with the very reverse: the actual fall out of being in a toxic relationship from the point of view of a woman struggling against societal expectations of how she is supposed to behave.  Perhaps in our post truth era such themes resonate particularly.  Actually, songs like ‘Straight Lines’ (which I think is all about mental health) speak of the empowerment that comes from self knowledge and self belief.

The subject matter doesn’t weight down the songs, though.  There is an effervescence throughout this album that is very beguiling.  Vega occasionally lulls you into a false sense that this is all a bit of bubblegum.  But the words and thoughts worm their way into your mind in a way that hasn’t happened to me very often.  I found myself staring into space at work this week thinking about ‘Small Blue Thing’.  I’m not sure I understand the song completely, but I did wonder if I was/is/have ever been a small thing in someone else’s pocket.

My friends who listened to Vega were all women.  I have an inkling about why Vega’s music would appeal especially to young women trying to find their way in a very uncongenial world.  Vega is smart and sharp, and unapologetically so, but she also seems to play the system.  The messages in her songs aren’t sugar coated but they also aren’t fully frontal.  There is almost a guide-book quality to this album, almost like Vega is teaching her listeners how to appear to conform whilst actually questioning, questioning, questioning.  If I had been a teenage woman I can certainly see why I’d have wanted to listen to what Vega was saying.  To my ears now, it’s also a call to question how I approach relationships and how I view those around me and their relationships.  Vega calls for equality and equity, but also for criticality and clarity.

We could all use some practice on recognising those.

V. You can never surrender

In this review: Corey Hart, Boy in the Box (EMA, 1985).

This almost isn’t a real review.  I saw this album in a discount bin for £1.  When my sister was in her mid teens, a giant poster of Corey hung on the door to her room. She must have spun all his tracks at one point or another.  With her birthday coming up, I thought I’d pick it up, throw it in an album frame, and send it to her.

Like most of us, though, the only track of his I can remember actually listening to is ‘Sunglasses at night’.  So, I figured I’d throw it on.  This led to two major surprises:

  1. This is a full album.  For some reason (perhaps the slightly naff album design) I thought this was a single. But no! It’s nine tracks of 1980s Canadian content. (That’s just over 10p a track, which pretty good value by anyone’s estimation.)
  2. It’s actually quite decent.

To start with, Hart’s voice is clear and strong. He doesn’t demonstrate the range that Sting or Bryan Adams does, but there’s good control there.  He mustered nice emotion as well, which plays well to the material in many of the tracks.  There is good, deep backup to his vocals.  A range of percussion fills in between some fun guitar shredding and the healthy dose of synth.  There is good energy throughout the album, making much of it come across as still fresh and approachable.

Hart is at his best in the slower songs.  ‘Never surrender’, for example blends his aching heart throb vocals with a slower backbeat that ends up having significant emotional impact.* ‘Everything in my heart’, leading off the second side, has the makings of a classic pop ballad.  The last minute of the final track, ‘Water from the moon’, is simply beautiful.

When things get more up tempo, though, it’s a bit shakier.  The title track, ‘Boy in the box’, fails to achieve critical mass and some of the other bouncier songs are slight non-starters.  More than a bit of this is down to the 1985 production choices.  The 80s saxophone line in ‘Komrade Kiev’, for example, is a bit embarrassing.

Still, if you’re reading this Mr Hart, I think you should be proud.  If I could pull out an album I cut 30 years ago (especially if it were my debute album) and have it as listenable as this one, then I’d consider myself damned lucky.  Also, I think my sister will be happy to be reunited with your sound.

* – I just checked, and ‘Never surrender’, won a Juno! So smart people agree with me 😏