Seemingly on the verge of death not long ago, Vini Reilly re-emerges with a timely, often gorgeous reminder of why he is among the greatest guitarists of his generation.
The context of Chronicle XL is crucial because in many ways it is more important than the music.
Were it not so true and affecting, Vini Reilly's story would be easy to dismiss as one in a long line of "tortured artist" clichés. Recording under the Durutti Column banner since his 1978 debut, Reilly has remained a fervent individualist in an industry where those are increasingly hard to find. His brilliant, singular, hugely influential guitar style made him a local legend in his native Manchester, where he was the first official signing to the seminal Factory Records label.
He was feted by the likes of Brian Eno and covered by Martin Gore from Depeche Mode. But to get to that point, Reilly had to endure a brutal adolescence full of violence and wild living. The damage came in the form a fragile psyche that in turn led to substance abuse and recurring, deep-seated depression. Reilly's closest brush with mainstream recognition came with his outstanding work on Morrissey's 1988 debut, Viva Hate.
But Reilly's mercurial nature helped ensure his stint as part of Morrissey's creative team was short lived. When Factory Records folded in the early 1990s, Reilly was left destitute. He eventually found his feet and maintained a recording schedule that allowed him to eke out a decent living from his loyal fanbase.
Then came the cruelest tragedy, followed by a touching renewal.
In 2010, Reilly suffered a pair of strokes, which impaired his ability to play guitar. In 2012, a third stroke rendered him unable to play at all. He was tortured by a head full of musical ideas that he could not express, and became suicidal. In 2013, Reilly's nephew used Facebook to make a plea for his uncle, who had not received the proper state disability aid and was once again on the verge of losing what little he had left. And that is where Vini Reilly's life took on a new air of hope.
Almost pathologically dismissive of his own talent, Reilly now accepted that he had been an important part of others' lives, and those people wanted to thank him. Within hours of his nephew's outreach, Reilly's mounting bills were covered. He dedicated himself to relearning guitar, despite the pessimism of his doctors. And he finished what was to become Chronicle XL.
The original Chronicle album was released in 2011, in conjunction with a retrospective show in Manchester. After Reilly's most recent ordeal, his long-serving manager/drummer Bruce Mitchell encouraged him to overhaul Chronicle and add new material as well. The resulting deluxe, two-disc edition was intended for Record Store Day 2014, but was delayed until July. It is now available as a physical package with additional material or as a standard digital download.
Chronicle XL is some of Reilly's most personal, intimate work, and not just due to its creator's struggles of late. The recording of the initial Chronicle was immediately preceded by the dissolution of Reilly's relationship with his longstanding girlfriend and collaborator. Reilly was devastated, and Chronicle became an emotionally raw breakup album. This makes up the first half of Chronicle XL. The songs have been re-titled and in some cases tweaked slightly. The second half features some new tracks along with further reworkings of previous material.
Reilly's unmistakable guitar tone and style have meant the entirety of his output retains a certain commonality. Over the years he had added and subtracted instruments, orchestrations, and electronic elements, but the overall feeling has remained much the same. Some fans have felt a sense of diminishing returns creep into Durutti Column's more recent material. Chronicle XL does not entirely escape that criticism. Ultimately, though, it’s best moments are among the high points of Reilly's career.
Reilly's sound is difficult to describe. Wound in delay and occasional chorus effects, it is simultaneously piercing and calming, soft yet forceful. On tracks like the gorgeous high point "Mello", it expresses what seems like excruciating pain but in a way that does not sound painful. It is simple, lush, and, here more than usual, elegiac. Sad, yes, but hardly depressing.
On songs such as "Poppy & Pancho", a cascading piano rhythm takes precedence over guitar. "Mercy in the Cathedral" is simply breathtaking, the explosions wafting around the background just one example of Reilly's penchant for well-placed samples and electronics.
Reilly does indeed get a bit of help from his friends as well. Mitchell lends a pulsing, slapdash feel to "Embattled Heart and Rattling" and a tribal intensity to "Juan Montero & the Drum". Reilly's whispy vocals have always been a polarizing matter. He does sing on several tracks, but he also turns over much of the second half to Mancunian neo-folksinger Caoilfhionn Rose Birley, whose gently atmospheric delivery meshes especially well on the trembling "Follow".
For some, Reilly's lovelorn lyrics will be confessional to a fault. "Poppy … you were my fairy", he says of his lost love. But, in the set's saddest moment, he also admits, "I guess you just weren't ready to watch my body growing old".
The more choppy, jagged, less-melodic aspects of Durutti Column's sound are not served particularly well on Chronicle XL, and the final third does indeed come across as more an eclectic mish-mash than a unified album, but such quibbles are largely beside the point.
Chronicle XL is a perfect impetus to re-discover, or maybe simply discover, the magic Reilly is capable of producing. Once you are drawn in, a vast, rich backcatalog awaits.
Reilly, who at 61 has made several public appearances in 2014, including one to promote awareness of depression and suicide, seems to be getting another lease on life. It seems he just isn't ready to watch himself growing old, either.