Dead Can Dance, along with label mates Cocteau Twins and the original Clan of Xymox, helped define the 4AD sound in the early ‘80s. And that sound doesn’t lend itself to singles so much as to moods, and the deep cuts often hide an album’s greatest riches. Because of that, Dead Can Dance is a whole album experience. A best of collection is really only a sampler for a band like this, so the question becomes, “Is this a strong sampler and, being the band’s third US retrospective, is it even warranted?”
In the early ‘80s, Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard migrated from Australia to London, and joined the 4AD stable in 1984. And it is here that they blossomed with seven studio albums and an excellent document of their live show (Toward the Within) before officially disbanding in 1999. The first Dead Can Dance retrospective, 1991’s A Passage in Time, was also their first proper US release and does a good job capturing the band’s work up to that time. Two years later, Into the Labyrinth was their first US studio release and the best album of their career.
Memento: The Very Best of Dead Can Dance concentrates heavily on late-career highlights, with a third of the tracks coming from Into the Labyrinth and another third coming from either Toward the Within or the box set, Dead Can Dance 1981-1998. All of the pre-Into the Labyrinth tracks are available on A Passage in Time and all but one track, Into the Labyrinth‘s “Ariadne”, can be found on the box set.
This new disc opens with “Nierika”, the lone representative from Dead Can Dance’s final studio effort, 1996’s Spiritchaser, before presenting their best known and most well-crafted song, Into the Labyrinth‘s “The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove”. The song is a showcase for the all the elements that made Dead Can Dance a singular musical experience. It opens with rattling electronic world beats that segue into a Middle Ages folk feel with wind instrumentals. Perry’s vocals here are his very best work, blending elements of Sinatra and Neil Diamond. The listener moves with Perry from confused lover to snarling condemner to disgusted ex over the course of the song.
From 1987’s Within the Realm of a Dying Sun, “Cantara” pulses and churns in on itself for nearly two minutes before the percussion suddenly and brilliantly blind-sides the listener. Sweeping beats and Middle Eastern vocals plant this song in both another world and another time. “The Lotus Eaters” has the distinction of being the last track Perry and Gerrard recorded together before parting ways and was only previously available on Dead Can Dance 1981-1998 and the 2003 UK-only retrospective, Wake. The song is a clear indicator that the creative well was not dry when the relationship ended. The heavy world beats and orchestral arrangements presented here are offset by sweeping strings and Gerrard’s eerie vocal styling.
Long-standing fans of Dead Can Dance will already have the albums and the Dead Can Dance 1981-1998 compendium. Those who came to the band with Into the Labyrinth picked up at least A Passage in Time to fill in the blanks, if not the entire back catalog. And when considering the breadth and depth of the comprehensive box set, it makes it hard to not go down the cynic’s path and assume this is an effort to cash in on Perry and Gerrard reforming to tour under the Dead Can Dance banner this year. Memento: The Very Best of Dead Can Dance is weak and unnecessary when held up against previous entries in this distinctive and exceptional band’s catalog.