Wivenbooks 2014, CD album & book, 57m 7s, 100pp
This is a review of a CD and a book, although there’s no particular reason to stop there. Adrian May is a performer, and although it says ‘songs and poems’ on the cover of his book, it’s pretty hard to draw a hard and fast distinction between them; poetry, music and performance in both modes seem all to be more or less equally important aspects of his creative practice. I’ve seen him perform, and I’ve made public some words on the subject, but the oddly arbitrary context to which I restrict myself here confines my attentions to the particular objects I have before me. Ordinarily this would be a CD, with a more or less extensive booklet, and I suppose I could reasonably enough treat the book as a particularly lavish booklet to accompany this album, but that would be a bit of a shame. I don’t think it’s really possible to separate these two artifacts: the CD is no more a freebie or a bonus with the book than the book is a guide to the album. I say this in the light of the specific character of the songs that are collected here, which is to say that they are not poems that have been decorated or ‘set’, any more than when you find them in the book they appear to be lyrics that have been lepidopterologically displayed on the page. A song, as I have argued at length in many reviews, is a whole, whose meanings do not, as it might be tempting to argue, derive equally from its musical and lyrical content in some kind of additive formula, but are to be found exclusively in the conjunction of the two, irreducibly immanent in the experience of listening and understanding. Obviously, to a xenoglot, the musical text will still register as meaningful, as will the lyric if it is read as a poem, and I have to admit that I often neglect to attend closely to lyrics when the music has my whole attention (partly because I’ve been so frequently disappointed by them), but there is a whole world of specific, un-paraphrasable significance to be found in the whole. Why eat a dry roll and some raw mince when you’re being offered a burger?
Stylistically, the music on the CD is fairly broad in its focus, although it is all of a rootsy, acoustic character, with a lot of nods towards the commercial entertainments of bygone eras. A bit of jazz, a touch of skiffle, a dash of blues, a loving infusion of music-hall, a generous pinch of folk; and lest you should form the impression that May is a poet who has a bit of an amateur flair for music, he has a sophisticated sense of harmony that draws on the deep, cosmopolitan well of the Great American Songbook, spicing his sequences with well-placed passing chords and chromatic embellishments. This is crucial to the unified rhetorical force of his songs, which turn affective corners in a nuanced counterpoint to their lyrics’ literal meanings; when you read the lyrics in the book (they’re all in there, nestling among the poems like Kinder Surprise Eggs in a box of free-range), you only have partial access to the meanings of the songs. That they don’t seem in any way deficient on the page is an achievement: good poems often don’t work well as lyrics, or vice versa, and that May’s words are able to move seamlessly between these parallel worlds is evidence, not only for their fundamental quality, but for his ability to speak both languages as a native. The arrangements are built largely around May’s guitar or ukulele and Murray Griffin’s double bass, which gives them a broad sonic span, most of which space is not filled in with details, although there are some very tasteful jazz guitar embellishments, some light, crisp drums and a number of other contributions which I won’t start to enumerate, or I’ll have to namecheck everyone who joins them on the album (there are several). May and Griffin constitute a performing duo known as Face Furniture, and it’s very clear from these recordings that their joint practice is the solid foundation on which the CD is built (or is that just me selfishly overrating the importance of bass players? I don’t think so).
The other thing that binds the songs to the poems and makes the whole work the singular utterance that it is, is the fact that it addresses itself to a specific set of concerns, around the fraught and disputed territory of gender (as one might have surmised from the title). Again, this is not a piecemeal effort, but a singular engagement with a very broad and various topic. I wouldn’t describe the poems or songs collectively as a ‘cycle’, but you might call the CD a concept album, in a sense decidedly distinct from that term’s usual connotations. There is a unifying theme, which is sometimes metaphorically submerged within the literal surface of the work, as in the heartbreakingly beautiful ‘The Blackbird and The Crow’, but is more frequently comedically direct, as it is in ‘Be A Man Today!’, ‘Soft Men’ and other examples. This strong current of humour is central to May’s writing, enabling him to address ideas that might otherwise be too raw or too worthy to make for comfortable listening, and expressing a warm, inclusive regard for the subjects of his pieces (roughly the whole of humanity, but with a particular focus on the inhabitants of Essex). It’s an unfortunately common cultural habit to regard creative utterances as either serious and profound, or as humorous and satirical; in my view this is a spurious distinction, and I’d argue further that it’s impossible to effectively inhabit one pole without embracing the other. Those who can’t laugh at the world (which obviously includes themselves) are avoiding stuff, but May wears no such blinkers, and is able to offer some resonant insights as a result. There is, in any case, a lot of humour in sexual politics, whichever way you slice them: unintended ironies abound, and May has a bloodhound’s nose for them.
At the core of the analysis that informs this work is an appreciation of gender as a cultural construction, whereon hangs the satire – if you think gender’s a given it’s probably very hard to think there’s anything funny about it! May pokes away at many of the cracks in the ideologies of gender, making fun of the narratives through which the masculine and the feminine are constructed, while expressing a wry affection for the people that act as vehicles for those discourses (himself included). ‘(After All He’s) Only A Man’ and ‘Permission To Be Your Fool’, both of which are very overtly comedic songs, seem to be key to the creative thrust of the album, and possibly of the book, although I have to admit I could probably re-read it a couple more times and come to a different conclusion! They explore the irony of male powerlessness, in traditional domestic circumstances, in the aftermath of feminism (for those men that have got the message), or in ‘love’s ritual’; this is a rich source of humour, but it is also pretty painful for many men who have been taught no other means to value themselves (and even more painful for the women who have to deal with the consequences). ‘Man’ is a concept that is almost impossible to extricate from ideas of strength of power without leaving it a crumbling, hollowed-out relic: The Comedy of Masculinity, obscure and self-effacing as it is (and precisely because it is those things), is an important contribution to the project of doing so. It might be argued that we should discard such gender categories entirely, but that’s extremely unlikely to happen. Instead (and if there is a unifying thread to May’s take on masculinity it’s this), the work is a powerful argument for the value of diversity and difference. Masculinity, in these songs and poems, is a slippery fish: it has no simple definition, and to give it one would be to undercut this thesis. Adrian May has understood the lack of an easy answer, and the profound danger of any attempt at a post-modernist flattening of the landscape. The importance of preserving difference in the struggle to eliminate inequality informs every line of this stuff; if there’s a broader idea within which the whole mess of gender can be situated, May seems to believe, it is the value of the specific over the generic. His use of language and music in support of these positions is enviably deft and precise, slipping complex analyses and real wisdom past our cognitive defences on the backs of jokes, melodies and moments of arresting beauty. If only all comedy was this masculine.
Amazing review, Oli. You really dissect and yet capture the complexity of Adrian’s nuanced collection. you get to the heart in such a detailed and illuminating way, distilling the power of the performance/music with Murray on board. Really perceptive, interesting and mightily impressive. you steer with such a sure hand in the choppy seas of gender politics and get it so right, emphasising the humour, irony and self deprecation. Thank you.