The landscape of Coates's songs is the size of a shoebox diorama.
1. When Psyche Met Cupid. In 2003 we went to San Francisco and visited Amoeba Records, a secondhand music store built into an old bowling alley a short way up Haight Street from the large park at the end. I bought The Real Tuesday Weld's When Psyche Met Cupid, and The Badger King's The Lighthouse, the Giant. The Real Tuesday Weld was romantically undecided. Sometimes he loved love. Sometimes he was amused by it. Sometimes annoyed. Sometimes he was both things in the same song. The samples he used, and still uses, have the antique sound of old wartime records heard on a wireless; knobbly trumpets, swing bands, Betty Boop hotfooting. He names this style "antique beat".
The CD slipped as I was putting it back into the case and one of the plastic teeth made a scratch that went right through "Am I in Love?" We bought a CD repairer just for that. The Lighthouse, the Giant is also very good.
2. I, Lucifer. A man called Stephen Coates masterminds the Real Tuesday Weld. Coates lives in London and sings in a light English accent. It's not singing so much as chanson speaking-singing, like a male Carla Bruni. He sounds as if he means what he says but he doesn't sound impassioned. He's more likely to sound wistful or disappointed or forgiving or thoughtful or as if he is mildly presenting an opinion that you might like to take or leave as it suits you.
In 2006 we found a copy of I, Lucifer, the album he made to accompany a book of the same name written by an old flat mate of his called Glen Duncan. Now my layman wants to read the book. The album stands on its own and it is also good marketing. I haven't read I, Lucifer, but many of the songs on the album mention love.
3. The Return of the Clerkenwell Kid. This album was released in 2005. I've never heard it. Some song titles: "Anything but Love", "L'amour et la morte", "I Love the Rain". "I Love the Rain" was used in a Coke commercial. Cherries pelted out of the sky.
4. The London Book of the Dead. We're told that his new album was inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Bardo Thodol. The Bardo Thodol tells you how to die properly, making it the only self-help book you'll really ever need. "O nobly-born," suggests the translation by W.Y. Evans-Wentz, "when thy body and mind were separating, thou must have experienced a glimpse Of the Pure Truth, subtle, sparkling, bright dazzling, glorious, and radiantly awesome, in appearance like a mirage moving across a landscape in spring-time in one continuous stream of vibrations. Be not daunted thereby, nor terrified, nor awed. That is the radiance of thine own true nature. Recognize it." If you don't follow these instructions then you will "have to wander in the Samsara," which is not the place you want to be, post-decease.
Stephen Coates doesn't tell you how to die, in London or anywhere else. At the beginning of the album his narrator is born, "I was born/And not very much was said about it" and near the end he likens death to a door, but only so that he can sing about love. "Walk through that door/ To find love was the one thing worth living for."
He spends most of the album reflecting on love. Death and London are secondary. The last words in "Last Words" are the last words of a relationship, not the last words of a life. In "I Believe" he acknowledges that other people believe in prophets and gurus, but "I believe I believe in love." "Kix" parodies the old Cole Porter love song. "I don't get my kicks out of you", he sings. Few of these loves are very specific, they're just general "love".
The antique beat is still in place. He uses short, shuffling beats, light touches of the high-hat, a clarinet that noodles upwards, a sweet American country fiddle, playful scat singing, scratching that swishes to a swing tune, and a clouded, averted overlay that makes the recordings sound as if they're coming from a distance. "Cloud Cuckooland" putters along on its ba-da-boops and "I Love London" sways to an old jazzy horn.
This album begins with the same combination of pinging and music box that he used earlier this year on a remix of Forro in the Dark's "Asa Branca". There and here it makes the song feel diminutive. Coates is a miniaturist. The landscape of his songs is the size of a shoebox diorama. Everything is scratchily illuminated. The elderly sound of the samples he chooses give his songs a hint of Joseph Cornell without Cornell's sometimes sadistic and recalcitrant sense of mystery. Evocative objects, in this case sounds, have been lifted from the past and reworked to reflect the character of the person doing the arranging. The album is a sepia photograph sitting incongruously but firmly in the modern age, an affectionate senility.
The London Book of the Dead is as intelligently constructed as its predecessors but the focus on love, love, love is starting to feel like a style tic. Even corpses aren’t allowed to get away from it. After walking "through that door" one dead, singing lover asks the other to rot with her. "And when the worms have done their thing/ a part of you will be a part of me." For all its cleverness and humour there's something infantile about this wishful thinking. This idea of temporal love as an eternal state is too false, even when it's presented with a joke. Is death in London really all about love? Of course it isn’t.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead's advice about letting go starts to seem compassionate in comparison. Leave. Escape. And the jazz and swing and gospel make this album sound closer to America than London anyway. Coates' gift hasn't diminished, his sound is still particular, enjoyable, smart, and filled with character. He keeps finding new ways to work with it, new manipulations of jazz and booping, but less love, yes, less love would be nice. Or at least, love in different flavours.