“Spirit changed the conversation
Stepping stones across the land
I never wanted to be a hero
I never wanted to be a man”
—“Move Away,” Culture Club and P. Pickett
Taking the story of Orphée, who descended into hell to save the one he loved, as a metaphor, and including dreamy liner notes by Neil Gaiman, writer of comics, novels and movies, this compilation bills itself as “an introspective descent into the male soul”.
I’ve been a male for about 30 years now, and while I won’t claim to have cornered the market on what that means—despite what some ex’s may tell you—I could swear it involved more whomping beats (at least at times), and a damn sight more wit than can be heard on this album. I wouldn’t mind if this were just a label sampler, which it kind of is, with half the artists recording for Projekt. But when something sets itself up as an exploration of the male soul, as this does, it has that much more responsibility to reflect some variety of tone, as this doesn’t.
This is mostly gothic music that’s not so much underground as underwater; delicate keyboards (lots and lots of keyboards) filling up track after track with a cool surface over slowly flowing vocals. Squeezed out melodies and Jim Morrisonesque “Brilliance”. Ironically it’s diluted by there being too much of the same thing; listening to this is like drinking straight vodka, or like visiting a depressed friend in a dark room. You can’t help wishing you had something to mix it with, or hoping they will pull up their shades and go outside.
That’s Boy George quoted up top, someone who knows a bit about “the ethereal nature of the male voice”. The boy and his mates are not included on this collection, which purports to be an exploration of that nature, which is a pity, because neither is anything that would keep it from sinking into itself. Not that George wasn’t or isn’t a lightweight, but this assortment of songs that, at their worst, sound like they were ponderously etched on parchment, could well use some colored construction paper.
That said, there’s some powerful stuff here.
If Ultravox founding member John Foxx’s wordless vocals vanish into the electronics of “Quiet Splendour”, and Black Tape for a Blue Girl (which revolves around Projekt Records owner Sam Rosenthal, who compiled this set’s “A Chaos of Desire” is similarly overcast, both have impressive luster and pomp. My reaction to the songs by Peter Ulrich and Human Drama are opposing sides of a coin. Musically, “Life Amongst the Black Sheep”, by Ulrich (formerly of Dead Can Dance) sounds pretty generic Celtic to me (not that I’m claiming to be an expert in that genre). But I like the melody, and the words:
“The day you came you changed the game forever and completely;
I walked on air, you put me there and soon you would return me
To life amongst the black sheep, the cotton and the barley,
When love is your friend and life has no end and ever more it shall be.”
In arrangement, Human Drama’s “A Single White Rose” is a relief in it’s contrast to the first three songs (piano, vocals and violins instead of electronics, electronics, electronics). But the lyrics are about as penetrating as Def Leppard (another band that could have been usefully added to the mix, as representative of the stupid but fun side of the male soul). Doubtlessly it’s the devil inside of me that admits curiosity about what would happen should Ulrich and Human Drama collaborate, the one on words and the other on music. To balance the scales.
Though most of the tracks are from the mid-1990s or later, a couple reach deeper into the past, all the way to 1984, to be exact. Tones on Tail’s “Lions” is a fine reminder of why they should have been better known. And “Nostalgia”, a track from David Sylvain’s first solo album, shows him prefiguring the ambient landscapes Peter Gabriel would produce in the following years.
On the floor in terms of quality on this collection is Audra’s “You’re So Pretty”, a rewrite of Kurt Cobain’s “Polly” lyric over simplistic guitar figures. Judgment of Paris’s “More” uses preset synth sounds to create nothing that breaks the mold. The charmingly named Christian Death’s “Mother” is Oedipal infantilism with digital delay. And finally, Pieter Nooten/Michael Brook’s “After the Call” reminds us that you don’t need synthesizers to sound like Depeche Mode.
So: Let’s review. Basically some good stuff, a few bad things, and not entirely what it pretends to be. Hmm…maybe this isn’t such a bad metaphor for the male soul after all.