[21 November 2013]
Ok, let me put this straight out there. Dexys, Dexys Midnight Runners and even Dexy’s Midnight Runners as the early handmade band posters named them, are one of the greatest groups to emerge from the United Kingdom and in Kevin Rowland they have one of the most intelligent songwriters and charismatic frontmen that ever graced a stage. Whilst know as a perfectionist, and a hard task master, Rowland has always surrounded himself with the tightest, hardest and most skilful musicians, ensuring his lyrical (and aesthetic) aspirations have always been matched from Big Jim Patterson to Kevin Archer to Pete Williams to Helen O’Hara to Mick Talbot; these are no mere stooges to Rowland’s genius and it’s good to say a number feature on the new album.
It’s hard to image say, “There There My Dear” from debut lp Searching For The Young Soul Rebels without the brilliant brass section of Geoffrey ‘Jeff’ Blythe, saxophone, Steve ‘Babyface’ Spooner, alto saxophone and ‘Big’ Jim Patterson, trombone (even the nicknames are redolent of the mighty Stax and Muscle Shoals and other soul luminaries that has always been a feature of Dexys work). Later albums such as the criminally underrated but absolutely incredible Don’t Stand Me Down featured virtuoso violin player Helen O’Hara, star of the monster hit “Come On Eileen”, another brilliant song that became something of an albatross for Rowland; immediately after the success of the song he completely changed the look and musical direction of Dexys which resulted in the release of the aforementioned Don’t Stand Me Down and perhaps explains the critics not really getting their head round ‘our Kev’s disregard for fame and fortune.
Part of Rowland’s obsessive drive for perfection, his dedication to his craft and his sometimes dictatorial behaviour to band members, can perhaps be attributed to his Irish Catholic background. A curse and a blessing that all Irish Catholics of a certain age carry around with us. For ours is a history of migration, of immigration, of racism, ‘No blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ ran the signs in England. The Irish built the roads, dug the canals and yet we were the ‘thick micks’, the drinkers and brawlers and then, of course, we were all terrorists.
It’s hard to imagine now, as everyone clamours to find some Irishness in them, some link to the Emerald Isle no matter how small, that being Irish and Catholic in the UK in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s was tough. You had to be hard and stand your ground. You had to assert your identity. You had to give as good as you got. And this, I think, is what Rowland has always been about. Proud of his identity and heritage, never taking a step backwards and never being told what to do or how he should behave.
But he is also incredibly guilt ridden and prone to opening up his heart for inspection, as well as introspection, in his music. A trait that comes to fore on the magnificent One Day I’m Going to Soar Dexys’ (they’ve dropped the Midnight Runners part) first album for 27 years.
This is to all intents and purposes a suite of songs centered on Rowland’s central narrator/character which one has to assume is Rowland himself. It deals with issues of family, notions of Irishness, love and loathing, lust and loss and an eventual public confession. As he says in the suburb album closer “It’s O.K. John Joe”, “And I don’t show much of myself in life / But, in my music I tend to put it all in / It’s like I got a need to get it all out of me / I can’t be what anybody wants me to be.”
One Day I Will Soar opens with a trio of songs: “Now” about his parents and his “ … secret urge to fly” and the possibilities of life. “Lost” sees Rowland reminiscing about his childhood days and the confusion we all face of growing up, whilst “Me” seems to be about his inner fight to be strong in the face of doubt as a young adult, a need to be accepted but on his terms? The middle section turns to tales of the heart (and other human appendages) as the inspired Madeleine Hyland makes an appearance as the, ultimately doomed, love interest and foil for Rowland’s inability to commit to anything other than to himself.
We go from the foreplay of “She Got a Wiggle” to infatuation on “You” and “I’m Thinking of You” to the brilliant drama of “I’m Always Going to Love You”. Well for the first two minutes or so of the song before, Kevin suddenly announces, actually I won’t always love you to which Madeleine screams, swears and storms off before taunting him for being “incapable of love” to which he has no defence, readily agreeing to her analysis of him. There is great interplay between the two over these tracks which provides the album with a terrific second act.
The third and final act sees Rowland in a more conciliatory and reflective mode. On the Bowie sounding “Sound and Vision” and “Nowhere is Home”, Rowland returns to the theme of his roots and his continuing search for an identity he can call his own, he seems lost and yet I’ve never heard him sound more sure of himself in any of his earlier music. “Free” is more uplifting wherein Rowland seems to be pumping himself up ready to go and find himself to be “ … the man I’m meant to be”.
Closer “It’s O.K. John Joe” is a piano led lament as Rowland enters into a confessional monologue, battling with himself, asking questions but never really finding the answer he seeks. It is as if the Irish Catholic has forgone the intimacy of the confessional box and priest and is instead asking us, the listener, to forgive him for his sins and weaknesses. Well Kevin, my absolution is that you continue writing such great songs.
I said at the top of this review that for me Dexys are one of the most important bands from the UK. One Day I’m Going To Soar merely reinforces that belief. Whether the album brings them a whole new generation of followers is doubtful. But if you only know them through “Come on Eileen” then I urge and implore you, give this a listen and then work backwards through the rest of their catalogue. You’ll be rewarded.