If someone over at Parlophone Records had been doing their job back in the summer of 1998, this album would never have seen the light of day. All I have to say is thank god whoever was supposed to be supervising Mansun’s follow-up to the mega-smash Britpop comedown, Attack of the Grey Lantern, was asleep at the switch. Six is one of the most improbable and unpredictable records I’ve ever heard (from a major label or otherwise) and that’s probably why I enjoy it so much. But I understand that it’s not for everyone. In fact, the few people I’ve exposed to this album have either a) violently ejected the CD from the player as if it were a reflex action, b) asked me to leave their home, or c) both. To date, I’ve only been able to convince one friend of its greatness and even he skips a good chunk of the songs. Still, I haven’t given up hope that its debauched beauty resonates with someone else out there.
As of right now, Mansun is but a footnote in history. Try bringing up Mansun in conversation and you’re almost certain to wind up discussing bad Eurythmics covers and fishnet stockings. Then, once you explain away the confusion, the slightly more aware music fan will say, “Right, they did that Grey Lantern album. I liked that ‘Wide Open Space’ song.” And for almost everyone in the States, the story ends right there. But see, for me, that’s where it really begins. Attack of the Grey Lantern was fantastic, and it easily ranks among my favorite albums of all time, but it still has nothing on their second offering. Six is the sound of a band collectively snubbing its fan base and smashing expectation to spectacular effect. No stone is left unturned and no genre unscathed over the course of its 70 monstrous minutes. Mansun nick “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” (yeah, the one from Piotr Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite) and marry it to lyrics about Stanley Kubrick faking it with the moon. They play a song entitled “Cancer” that, at over nine minutes long, features three distinct movements and they actually have the gall to break into laughter right in the middle of it. There’s a minute-long piano ballad called “Inverse Midas”. Yes, there’s even an operatic interlude that includes a voiceover from the legendary Tom Baker entitled “Witness to a Murder Part II”. (FYI, “Witness to a Murder Part I” does not appear on the album and may not even exist.)
Admittedly, Six is preposterous — almost certainly the product of copious amounts of drugs. But there’s something compelling about its insanity, the way it veers from classical scores to pedal-morphed guitar solos without so much as a case of whiplash. This is inspired dementia from start to finish. Some would be tempted to call it a concept album, but, honestly, there’s too much going on for there to be a coherent concept. I prefer to think of it as a “conceptual” album — one that has the arc and scope of a concept album but never quite follows through. There are scattered references to Scientology, Winnie the Pooh, and Marxism. But really, they’re mocking the whole idea of a concept album. If Attack of the Grey Lantern was a spoof, Six is an outright parody.
The title track, which also, fittingly, happens to be the opener, sets the tone perfectly. It begins with a short piano intro before guitarist Dominic Chad revs up his guitar for a blazing volley. Then, as the riffs die down and the strings fray, the track seemingly gives way to an entirely new song as Draper sings, “Life is a compromise everyday”. His voice short-circuits, leapfrogging from speaker to speaker. Any sane band would have divided the two sections up into separate songs, but not Mansun. And it’s all the better as it is. “Television” is a frightful epic that takes on our present day fascination with the tube — lampooning our insatiable desire for up-to-the-minute news coverage. It ends with an avalanche of guitar feedback and a two second blip of our very own national anthem. The very next track, “Special/Blown It (Delete As Appropriate)”, lulls the listener into a false sense of security only to deliver a backhanded punk wallop with Draper carrying on about fucking up, shooting his load, and spewing on the motorway shoulder. Varied to say the least. But whole thing works because Mansun, even at their most deranged, can’t betray their pop instincts. Their unerring ear for a memorable melody keeps the enterprise from sinking under the weight of ambition.
Much of Six goes on in this perfectly convoluted manner, save for the pristine ballad, “Legacy” (which is the saddest rumination on the fate of washed-up rock stars I’ve ever heard). The album isn’t so much a collection of songs as it is fragments and ideas. The story goes that Mansun entered the studio with very little in the way of actual material. They had nothing but 27 small sections and spare melodies. Whereas every other band would try to flesh out the pieces into complete songs, Mansun decided to do it the harder way: combining the disparate segments as best they could. The result is akin to a collage, but, to their credit, it never feels forced or haphazard. Instead, the approach yields the most challenging and beguilingly unexpected music. It sounds like no one and everyone: Magazine, Joy Division, Prince, Radiohead, David Bowie. But make no mistake, these fragments, snippets, whatever you want to call them do somehow, almost miraculously, form coherent songs. Six is a never short of a delirious prog-punk romp.
Sadly, Epic Records has ruined the Mansun experience for American audiences. Both of their albums have been irreparably mauled, but Six more so than the Attack of the Grey Lantern. Epic removed “Inverse Midas” and pared down “Six” and “Being a Girl” to both songs’ detriment. I’d go as far as to say that the American version of Six isn’t even the same album. You’re better off not hearing it all than to subject yourself to such an inferior, watered-down edition. If you’re serious about listening to Six, do it justice and get the import.
Mansun’s wayward path following Six has been equally distressing. Little Kix, their third album, is the most wretched album I’ve ever heard from one of my favorite bands. Bland, unimaginative, and overproduced, the album was everything that Six was not. It’s hard to believe a band could stumble so terribly, but I suppose to scale such impossible heights, you’ve got to risk colossal failure. Since the chilly reception of Little Kix, the band has been holed up in the studio, trying to regain their form. They emerged briefly this past May to test material at a handful of live dates across England. To be fair, it’s hard to pass judgment on bootleg recordings, but what I heard of the new stuff didn’t sound promising.
But even if Mansun never recovers, the band will always have a special place in my CD collection. I only hope that people appreciate Mansun somewhere down the line — that their sonic experiments weren’t all for naught. That would be the greatest shame of all.