Fans of intricately layered Britpop, take note: this is one you might find okay at first listen. However, by the tenth listen it’s almost certain you’ll be totally enthralled. Beyond that, it might even come to number among your very favorites. Seriously. This is sweet grown-up melancholy captured in beautiful melodic arrangements with well-placed string and horn accents. Cunningham, a Briton living and working in France, hits all the right notes on this, his fifth and most widely distributed release.
Happy-Go-Unlucky is a wonderful mélange of haunting influences brought together with the utmost of craftsmanship. It comes across as simple and new, yet elements within seem as familiar as an old favorite chair.
“Losing Myself Too” opens the proceedings with a simple request for assistance: “Can you help me / The last time I saw myself I was here / Camouflaged / Wishing I was somebody else with amnesia”. This starts simply as a bouncy bass and piano-driven song that builds to something almost Pink Floyd-like in its moody slow organ wash.
Cunningham strays into Lennon-esque psychedelic pop territory with the somber-paced “Here It Is”. This lovely musical poem conveys autumnal imagery as it fades into laudable French horn and trumpet work from Marcus Britton and Sam Hayden: “Windsor red in tobacco / The fading sun burns the sky / Autumn touches the ground and parallel days creep by / But you know it’s alright to be alone”. This song calls to mind the music of Cardinal and the work of component members Eric Matthews and Richard Davies.
There’s more of a McCartney feel to “Way to Go”, again featuring great performances from Joe Watson on piano, Carl Meturapeny on bass and Paul Portinari on drums. Cunningham is able to balance a catchy melody with words that relate a bleak turn of unlucky events as the narrator comes to the end of his time (“what a way to go”).
Perhaps the crowning Beatle reference here is found on “Can’t Get Used to This”, a song that is a spiritual cousin to “I Want You” in the way it builds gradually to a wonderful crescendo. Starting from simple piano and bass, Cunningham relates wishes for things to go well along with his discomfort with the darker reality that exists. This simmers to an instrumental boil, as strings (violin, viola, and cello) take over only to relinquish sway to a very masterful Harrison-like guitar lead, perfectly rendered.
“It Isn’t Easy” starts with a simple “Dear Prudence” type of guitar sound and builds to cello echoes as it conveys the difficulties of truth and the passage of time: “Truth that will find you / Demons in tender years / So hard to exorcise / And I can’t keep my fears within reach”. Okay, so maybe Cunningham is not going to win any happiness contests, but his music more than counter-weighs the oft-ponderous tone of the words.
John Cunningham arranges all the strings (scored and assisted by Joe Watson) except on the great “You Shine”. Here, musical wunderkind Mehdi Zannad (Fugu) commandeers horn arrangements that are a seeming combination of Sloan and yet further Beatle references in a song of love/friendship that truly is upbeat.
More poetic autumnal imagery pervades the sweet soft strains of “Invisible Lives”: “Invisible lives pass him by / They move each with a reason and a purpose in mind / Too old too young too simple too mean too kind”.
“Welcome to The World” is the odd guitar-based song here, yet equally infectious as the others in its semi-sarcastic tones: “Welcome to the deserted fair / Where manners meet murder and hope despair / You do what you want to do / Welcome to the world”.
“Take Your Time” is a good old-fashioned sing-along anthem of a song, with a real chorus helming the refrain “It’s all you’ve got to do / Take your time”.
The quiet “It Goes On” (starting out as a distant musical relative of Elton John’s “Come Down in Time”, then morphing into its own identity with impressive string arrangements) closes this ten-song collection on a poignant note. Cunningham uses lush orchestration and well-honed song craft to make his thoughtful musings go down in a very easy way.
There’s a tendency toward softer acoustic sounds, and he does sound a little Nick Drake- or Robert Wyatt-like at times, though the orchestrations invite comparison to a host of others as well (Joe Pernice is a big fan, understandably). The more you listen to this, the more its complex subtleties reveal themselves. Happy-Go-Unlucky is a mature collection of baroque existential pop gems perfectly suited for those who think such beautiful music stopped decades ago. With luck, it should bring the surprisingly unknown John Cunningham’s talents to a much larger audience. This record certainly deserves it.