Feeder: Comfort in Sound

Comfort in Sound

What is it with rock ‘n’ roll and suicide? Yeah, yeah, I know all the stuff about the fragility of the artistic temperament, the effect of drugs and the loneliness of the tour. What I mean is, why the hell is it afforded this bizarre glamour? This whole James-Dean-Kurt-Cobain-only-the-good-die-young thing is a terrible cliché (Pete Townshend was its founding father. Look at him now). Bowie latched onto it in the early ’70s in his typically arch (and brilliant) way, but the premature deaths of Hendrix, Morrison and Lennon have created an industry of tragedy. This trio didn’t take their own lives (well, as far as we know with Morrison), but the framework of the perfect rock star was set: you gotta go early.

Then they started to drop like flies at their own hands, and the rock media, and popular culture more generally, saw suicide as a bona fide way of rubber stamping iconic status. In the UK, it was the disappearance of Richey Edwards (Manic Street Preachers) which stirred up a media frenzy, before Kurt’s death made it a global phenomenon. Suicide is grubby, frustrating and inestimably sad for those involved, but a glossy money-spinner for the unscrupulous in this industry. Now the real problem comes with the way this attitude has started to permeate music itself. The appropriation of the suicide motif by faux-miserabilist tossers with an army of PRs, especially in the many genres of sub-metal that are so expertly pitched at affluent white middle class teenagers, is infinitely tiresome. Suicide has been perverted into the rock ‘n’ roll ethos.

Feeder’s drummer, Jon Lee, killed himself in his Miami home in January 2002. Much of the press reaction -– in stark contrast to the band -– has been depressing. The two remaining members, bassist Taka Hirose and singer/songwriter/guitarist Grant Nicholas have spoken movingly about Lee’s suicide, but much of what has been written has been a gross simplification –- nothing less so than calling this their ‘suicide’ album. It is supposed to signal a new departure for the band and be a tribute to Lee. The latter is true, the former a tenuous conclusion indeed -– something that fits the prearranged template.

2001 was Feeder’s long awaited purple patch. Before the release of that year’s Echo Park, the band (originally from South Wales, before picking up Hirose in London) had struggled to rise out of semi-obscurity in the mid-’90s. The 1997 single “High” made a minor dent on the charts, and successive albums saw them establish a reasonable fan base. They underwent the nadir of soundtracking a computer game (Gran Turismo) and seemed to have missed out on mainstream success. But then they pulled Echo Park out of the bag.

Stuffed with radio-friendly power pop (think Therpy?-lite) and fueled by the successes of the nonsense-rhyming single “Buck Rogers”, glam-Feeder ascended to the status of festival headliners. I didn’t like them much. I could admire their persistence, but they seemed stuck in the post-Nirvana mire of the quiet-loud formula that did for so many other bands. Their successful singles had a really catchy pop sensibility, but the lyrical and sonic depth of little more than a novelty record. Now, with the pared down sound of garage rock in its ascendancy, Feeder even sound a little dated, a relic from the late ’90s. I thought they had peaked, and they would drift away. I was wrong.

With former Skunk Anansie drummer Mark Richardson filling in on drums, Comfort in Sound has been a massive commercial success in the UK, Japan and South Africa. Next on the agenda: the US. The release of this album will be followed by a two-month tour stateside. The sound is certainly more somber than before, and many of the lyrics are occupied with the emotional aftermath of Lee’s suicide. Indeed, the irritating nonsense rhymes that undermined parts of Echo Park are almost entirely absent, and, while Nicholas is a long way from becoming poet laureate, there is a beguiling simplicity to some of lyrics; certainly the biggest improvement on the album. This is further helped by the ditching of the studio effects that distorted Nicholas’ voice on previous outings -– leave them to Cher. His voice may not be the strongest, but benefits from its nakedness, especially on current UK single “Forget About Tomorrow” and album closer “Moonshine”.

However, musically they are still ploughing the same furrow. The chugging “Godzilla” is monstrous, and the similarly heavy-handed “Helium” isn’t much better. These apart, Feeder still have an ear for a reliable melody though. For established fans, there is a reassuring predictability to these three-chord riffs, but if, like me, you were hoping for a shift in ambition from the band, you may be somewhat underwhelmed. The big marketing push, aided by the captivating artwork of Aya Takano, has brought the band deserved success. While they are a bit limited, and aren’t pushing any boundries, this is their best release, a gradual, steady improvement. Comfort in Sound is occasionally moving, always listenable, but rarely inspiring.