It’s probably safe to assume that somewhere in Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s fictional universe of Sin City, the collected works of Barry Adamson are constantly playing. Beneath his cartoon martini lounge jazz-pop lies an openly repressed depravity. His icy exteriors are so slick and cynically confident that you can picture them inhabited by a world rendered only in black and white, eternally clouded by the smoking embers of a seemingly endless supply of discarded cigarette butts. “Murky World” was how one Adamson release saw fit to describe it.
Things get mighty murky on Back to the Cat, which finds Adamson lurking halfway between the gutter and the neon. It’s a shirk away from the sick caricatures in search of a soundtrack aesthetic played out on many of his past albums. Some songs even exhibit an oddly creepy Tom Jones razzle-dazzle, with highballing big band support that would be perfect for some high-toed junkie rockette heel-kicking. Like a Vegas Jacques Brel, Adamson digs deep under his fingernails while clutching the microphone until he’s red in the face. If Wayne Newton is playing at the Stardust, Adamson is across town at the dive bar with all the down-and-out losers just cashing out on their way to a cheap motel after pawning away their hopes and dreams.
As a former Bad Seed, is should be noted that Adamson’s grim baritone is not too disimilar from that of Nick Cave’s. Cave now spoltights himself center stage, like Adamson, as something of a goth crooner. The vital difference between the two is that Adamson bears no pretentions about shaping his craft into a solipsistic singer-songwriter mold. Most of his lyrics, though heavily archaic, are pop standards in reverse, using the illusory tangent tangible of the love song as an unconcious epicenter for his and our perverse desires, ably cross-examining the manic-depressive psychoses of a world engendered by contant violent turmoil, yet able to sing nothing but sweet love songs to one another.
With the Hermann strings at a brief recess, Adamson’s voice explores these dichotomies in fragmental passages on Back to the Cat. Thematically murky in terms of narrative as well as subject matter, the subtext remains impenetrable even after several listens. It’s certain that somewhere there’s been a “murder”. Whether it is a physical murder or a crushed heart is moot. Adamson’s, or, perhaps more appropriately, the narrator’s heart, we find out, is “Now the victim / Of murder in the first degree”.
The INXS-ish “Civilization” appears to be about a man on the run, hoping to bring either divine relevation to the world, or atonement to himself—perhaps both. The ultrasleazy swing of “Psychosexual” complains wearily, with a name-check tossed out to Kubrick’s early boxing noir: “All the smiles I get with a killer’s kiss / They serve me no grief on a plane with fries on the side”. Later in the same track, the album’s final, it appears he has been hunted down and captured for his crimes of passion. “I guess it’s always been my fate / They’re gonna hang me by the taint”, he says, leading us to again question if it’s the narrator’s crime, whatever it may be, or society’s psychosexual bloodlust that should be on trial.
“Straight ‘Til Sunrise” is the most protracted indicator of foul play, but only in hints and peepholes. “What I said / Went all the way / Into her head like a dagger of misery / The mystery broken and dead”, raves the lunatic narrator as he speeds out of town to a breezy strut which sounds like it’s coasting down the highway with the top down. Carefree xylophones, salubrious brass, and playful hammond organ shoot into the music’s veins like a blissful rush at 80 mph and 80 bpm. If it weren’t for the interrupting sounds of police sirens (which I must state that I categorically hate on albums, especially when you’re blasting a CD in your car on the way to work at a busy intersection), you could easily mistake lines like “maybe I’ll move to Hollywood” for some kind of life-affirming assertion, and the line “maybe she’s done and gone for good” as an elegy from the dumped.
Elsewhere, Adamson returns to the subjects of fire, rot, angels and demons, and the repeated notion of a “crazy dream”. The album starts on this note in “The Beaten Side of Town”, as Adamson reveals “I woke up this morning from a crazy dream / The earth was a turning ball of fire” atop jazz flute flutters, lonely trumpets, and a somnambulistic walking bassline. The nebulous oneiric aura, kept alive by disarming sound effects and grimy atmospherics playing against type within the uptempo pop numbers, pairs Adamson fittingly with David Lynch, who regularly employs the type of nightmare jazz found on Back to the Cat in his films (including the four Adamson selections which appeared in Lost Highway). Like Lynch, Adamson’s meanings are keyed in symbolic structures. The listener spends half of the album wondering if Adamson has actually woken from the crazy dream he speaks about. “I pray for somewhere I can rest my weary appetites and dream”, Adamson laments on “Psychosexual”, hoping to return.
Yet, his verse is often times as uninspired as it is unfocused. Adamson’s voice often lacks the bombast to keep up with his lively Eros and Thanatos Unlimited Orchestra. He’s a hair shy of the energy needed to keep up with the pop vocal big boys. And for all the mystique of his psychodrama, he still manages to spurn out some real whoppers like “I used to hang out in the dark in my one room apartment / You see, I didn’t have a clue what having a heart meant” (“Spend a Little Time”) and “Love’s hotel was open / And now there’s a vacancy” (“I Could Love You”).
Luckily, the music is alive and bursting from the seams with an isometric decahedron of tunes and good ideas, thanks in no small part to the album’s players (Ross Mason, Johnny Machin, Tobias Mudlow, Nick Plytas, Ian C. Ross, Merlin Sheperd Kapelye, and Peter Whyman). As Adamson’s pop album, it’s full of references. The opening guitar strands of “I Could Love You” mime Otis Redding’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is”. Later on in the same song, Adamson whines over a slow soul Al Green groove that he could “break down and cry”, just as Bowie did on “Young Americans” while the backup singers coo a very Smokey Robinson-esque “oooh baby baby”. “Walk on Fire”, while containing the closest thing to a modern drum break on the album, has hot funk wah wah straight out of Shaft, tonally apes Isaac Hayes’s “Walk on Bye”, and even ends a chorus with a cool rhetorical question. Namely, “Who’s talking clean and walking dirty?”
A better question might be “Who’s the cat who’s building dreams and thinking dirty?” But I guess that one’s pretty easy to answer.