Happy 30th birthday to The Comforts of Madness. By now, you really should have settled down, got a proper job, a sensible haircut, and maybe even a kid or two. Instead, you’re still banging on that guitar, singing too quietly, and being My Bloody Valentine’s lesser-known half-brother. Is the world desperate to hear from you again after 30 years? In all honesty, probably not, but you are rather interesting.
The UK music scene at the end of the 1980s was a mixed bag of the good, the bad, and the improbable. Somewhere, tucked between rave culture and the twee pop boom that made cardigans and 501’s the de rigueur fashion choice of undergraduates across the land, was shoegaze. In the US, this was rebranded as dream pop – a far more romantic appellation, I’m sure you’ll agree. And this is where we met Pale Saints. The Comforts of Madness was their first and most successful album, climbing to the anchor position of the UK top 40 in 1990. It may be harsh to say that only a handful of people were desperate to hear it again, but here it is anyway, the original album’s 11 tracks, swelled by a further 16 demos and radio sessions.
The Comforts of Madness is almost the dictionary definition of a shoegaze record. The guitars are either fuzzed or flanged to the high heavens, the drums thump along dependably, and the bass is walloped with a plectrum. What about the vocals? Well, in true shoegaze fashion, they’re almost indecipherable, sung as if by a choirboy (imagine Morrissey at his most fey) and buried at the bottom of the mix. On the bonus tracks on this expanded version of the album, the vocals are more prominent and they work a lot better. These tracks also have a sense of urgency that is missing from the “proper” album.
The album starts with a frantic drum tattoo, quickly settling into a narcotic fog that hangs over all 11 songs. It takes until the third track, “Sea of Sound” — could it be a more shoegazey title? — before things get interesting. Despite the vocal melody threatening to turn into “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)” on several occasions, it manages to achieve the intensity that the band were reaching for. Drums are used judiciously, and the guitars ebb and flow in a beautifully controlled way. It’s gorgeous.
“Language of Flowers” steals a Peter Hook bassline and grafts it to neat, pop tune. It’s here that you really wish that vocalist, Ian Masters had more depth to his voice, as this could have been a bit of a classic. It’s still pretty damn good, it has to be said. “Fell from the Sun” comes a close second in the race to be the albums’ definitive track and has a drive that some of the other tunes on the record lack. And a great guitar solo, too.
The rest of the record ambles along carelessly, with only isolated moments generating any interest. The demo versions on CD2 of the package, are clearer and stronger, with the claustrophobic, big studio production removed. They breathe more, the melodies are further to the front, and they’re just better. In this instance, less is very much more.
This expanded, deluxe version of The Comforts of Madness will make some people very happy indeed. They’ll finally be able to retire their cassette recording of the John Peel session tracks and the woolly sounding bootleg of the demos they proudly display alongside the band’s three albums. Will it make any new converts to the cause? I doubt it. As a curio from one of the most unsettled times in UK music (pre-grunge and post indie), it’s interesting, from an academic rock nerd’s perspective. For everyone else, if you’re looking for an album that has all the hallmarks of a musical movement but only some of the flair of the leading lights of that scene, here it is. Warts and all.