August 20, 1999 probably doesn’t strike you as a particularly dark day in the history of pop music. However, there’s a damn good reason that it should — it was when William Arthur, singer/songwriter/guitarist for the Australian band Glide, was found dead of an overdose in his home at age 34. At this point, you may be asking “Who are Glide, and why the hell should I care?” Well, to be frank, you should care because they are quite possibly the best band you’ve never heard. Now, I’m quite well aware of how much of a cliche that little phrase is, and that people say it every damn day about their pet favorite bands, worthy or not. However, if you believe a critic just once in your life, it should be now; this shit is for real.
Glide was one of those rare bands that had everything perfectly in place pretty much from the get-go — in Arthur, they had a leader who was not only a staggeringly brilliant songwriter, but also a singer capable of an amazing range of emotion, as well as a dynamic and charismatic frontman. Arthur also always seemed to have the good sense (or luck) to bring extremely talented players into his fold — both drummer Jason Kingshott and bassist Andy Kelly assert themselves throughout Disappear Here as extremely creative, talented players who also play with remarkable sensitivity to Arthur’s songs. Their parts stand out, but simultaneously serve the songs in the best fashion possible.
All this, and Glide were extremely accessible, too. A band like, say, XTC, might exhibit pretty much all the qualities detailed above, from brilliant songwriting to amazingly skilful playing, but there are times when they simply get too smart for their own good, trying to cram a zillion ideas into one four-minute song. Glide, on the other hand, are certainly smart, musicianly, and complicated, but subtly so. None of their songs feel overstuffed with too many ideas, and there is always a perfect balance between delicious pop accessibility and complex songwriting. The choruses to most of these songs could easily get stuck in pretty much anyone’s head, if given the chance. However, when one digs a little deeper, it becomes abundantly clear that Arthur was one of those rare songwriters who could write irresistibly catchy pop songs while simultaneously throwing the pop song rulebook out the window.
Coming across like Versus on a Britpop bender, Disappear Here kicks off with the hard-edged “You Were Always More Than Just a Trick to Me, Ray”. It’s far from the most instantly accessible track on the record, but its dissonant verse gives way to a soaringly melodic bridge, with Arthur singing “I like that side of you/You can knock me down when you show that side of you”. As enigmatic as its title (contrary to what the title of the song might imply, Arthur was not gay), “Ray” offers just a peek into the world of pop riches that Glide has to offer.
After the push-and-pull of dissonance vs. melody that “Ray” presents the listener with, track two, “What Do I Know”, wallops you over the head with a huge, melodic hook right from the get-go, with Andy Kelly’s exuberant bassline bubbling over the top. Tellingly, this is also one of the most lyrically direct songs on the record, with Arthur chastising someone close to him for getting a little too close: “You give me protection I don’t need / Too many connections I don’t see / If my imperfection grates / What do I know?” This then gives way to a shattering chorus, which could easily be interpreted to be a direct self-assessment of his drug problems: “Just one little taste takes away 10 years / When all you wanna get is high / You sure understand how the waters take you / When all you wanna get is high / You know how you feel when the feeling leaves you / But all you wanna get is high”. Whether he was talking about himself or someone else with these words, I have no idea, but it’s more than a little bit eerie given Arthur’s eventual fate. The song stands as one of the most brilliant pop moments on the record — musically flawless, lyrically prickly and perfectly heart-wrenching.
“What Do I Know” is a song that would cap most band’s careers, but on Disappear Here, it has to fight for prominence with several other equally worthy tunes merely for the honor of top song on the record! Another such stellar tune is “Tangled”, which repeats the theme of minor-key, slightly dissonant verse paired with chimingly melodic chorus that “Ray” introduced. This time, however, the switch from verse to chorus is simply perfectly executed. As Arthur sings “I can’t always see but I can feel / Look down to see what’s tangled up in your wheels”, the band gears up for the dreamy chorus, which once again finds Arthur in full-on prickly/defensive lyrical mode: “It’s so hard to forgive or forget / Flipping like a fish, gasping for breath / Tangled up in a net”. The segue is nothing short of perfect, and is absolutely breathtaking: it’s one of those moments that will send involuntary shivers up your spine every time.
The rest of the record is jam-packed with songs that, while perhaps not quite equaling the knockout punches of “What Do I Know” and “Tangled”, come awful close. From the shoegazer-esque, blissed-out “Surfaced Euphoric” to the pure-pop (best song Oasis never wrote?) brilliance of the shimmering “Here She Comes”, to the soaring chorus of “Wrapped In Figers” (“You wouldn’t hurt me, would you?”), not only is there not a bum track on the record, there’s nothing that comes close to falling short of excellent.
In fact, it’s almost hard for me to convey the heights of brilliance that Disappear Here scales so often, so effortlessly. While virtually every song is a pop song through-and-through, most of them completely eschew the standard verse-chorus-verse formula in favor of much more quixotic arrangements. Take “Ripped and Stripped”, one of the many highlights of the second half of the disc, for instance. It begins with Arthur banging out a riff catchy enough to be the envy of practically any pop band, and solid enough to be the centerpiece of the best song of their career. However, for Glide, this is merely an intro — the riff gives way to a deliciously melodic two-part verse, then slams back into the then into the opening riff, then into a second verse, then finally into the chorus. The catch is that once the chorus hits, the band never actually comes back to the verse, but plays around with the chorus and a bridge until the song’s end. This, by all rights, should not work at all, yet it does, magnificently. In fact, unless you’re really paying attention, you probably won’t even notice. And that’s merely one example — throughout Disappear Here, Arthur reveals himself as a master songwriter at the top of his game.
This realization makes his loss all the more stinging — nevermind the fact that he and his band were never able to realize their potential, and were never able to gain the worldwide recognition that they so richly deserved. Although they did fairly well in their native Australia, and were able to mount one relatively successful US tour, that’s not a legacy that one of the best pop bands of the ’90s deserves. No one ever said that life was fair, and no one proves that adage true more than William Arthur and Glide. Since it seems that they will never be universally celebrated, the task is left to diehard fans to spread the word of the man and his band’s genius. Thankfully, all Glide releases are still available, if only through the official Glide website, at http://www.ozemail.com.au/~ryalljoe. I’ve said this many times before, but at no time have I meant it more seriously than now: if you’re a fan of smart pop music of any kind, from britpop to shoegaze to indie, you owe it to yourself to discover Glide, and find out exactly what the world lost when it lost William Arthur.