[4 June 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Known almost exclusively as the former guitarist for Blur to North American audiences, Graham Coxon has now released seven complete solo records, with four of those coming while he was still an active member of Oasis’ nemesis. They portrayed Coxon in a lo-fi bedroom producer light, often playing all of the instruments himself. While battling alcoholism in 2002, his time with Blur ended as the band sought to have Fatboy Slim produce what would be their last album, Think Tank, and he didn’t like the direction. Fatboy only ended up working on a couple tracks, adding a certain discoloration to an already spotty release (the Slim produced “Crazy Beat” remains one of their worst ever tracks).
While Graham’s first four records had charted on a downward curve from 31 to well over 100, he surprised everyone in 2004 with Happiness in Magazines. Produced by former Smiths and Blur knob-twiddler Stephen Street, the album quickly became his most successful yet as it shot to #19, and earned Graham the NME “Best Solo Artist” award. That record toned down his previous lo-fi sound in lieu of ballsy garage rock hybrids and the occasional string section. That pivotal moment showed that Blur, in fact, needed Coxon, and not the other way around.
Life kept on getting better for Graham. He quit drinking, had a daughter, and returned to #24 on the UK charts with 2006’s Love Travels at Illegal Speeds. Granted, his own indie imprint Transcopic petered out between albums, but that seemed to hit him like one less thing to worry about. He guided tabloid darling Pete Doherty (The Libertines) into forging his solo debut early in 2009, lending his legendary chops to all but a single track on Grace/Wastelands. Graham also found time to rekindle his fragmented friendship with Damon Albarn, and as of this review is currently set to rejoin the Britpop legends after five years away for some festival gigs this summer.
The amazement continues with The Spinning Top. Happiness has been known to breed creative complacency, hence the “experimental” recordings of John and Yoko and the last three lukewarm Super Furry Animals albums. Yet, Coxon’s seventh solo record – and third straight to be recorded by Street – pushes his sound to a new realm, even as Graham sounds as if he exists in absolute rapture. Akin to Howl, the arguably the single greatest album Black Rebel Motorcycle Club ever made, Spinning Top focuses heavily on acoustic instruments. Combined with Graham’s distinctively youthful voice, it is an almost sickly sweet, good time summer record.
With Graham’s selection of Fenders and Gibsons mostly riding the bench, we get to see his nimble dexterity on an acoustic guitar with an unobstructed view. He lists his current influences as Martin Carthy, Davey Graham, and John Fahey, and those come through clearly along with a little Nick Drake and a side of the usual Syd Barrett. Rich melodies give a tangible vibrancy to this concept album, which reportedly follows a man from birth to death. Not only does Coxon know how to write a song, he can write a dozen on a progressive theme. There is nothing about this record that isn’t awe-inspiring.
“In The Morning” is nothing short of epic. It’s over eight minutes long, based entirely on a precisely plucked guitar progression over an upright bass, with some ethereal female vocal support, a tambourine, chirping birds, and what sounds like a banjo violin marking he end of each cycle. If it isn’t 10AM on a blazing Sunday morning when you start that track, at least you will at least believe it is.
“Humble Man” falls in line with Howl on its bass progression and straight rock drums until a phased out slacker guitar rolls in to color the lead melody, breaking out during the bridge into a swirling guitar battling itself. “Sorrow’s Army” could fit on Howl too, with its fierce, bluesy guitar tune that chugs along through the addition of a classic R&B rhythm section. Conversely, “Perfect Love” shows Graham’s more innocent and playful side, with pining, naively optimistic lyrics over a chipper Jack Johnson guitar until the midway point, when a warbly horn and shakers, among other things, take the festivities to bossa nova land.
Admittedly, I don’t hear the supposed life cycle lyrical storyboard here, but what I do hear is equally as profound. I hear one of the best guitarists in recorded history gaining perspective on his own life through the eyes of his child, and becoming a more rounded human being before our ears. With only the confidence that kind of young, pure, unambiguous love can provide, he felt comfortable enough to produce one of his most honest, unabashed, unpretentious, and downright joyful records. I couldn’t be happier for him.