When it comes to Renaissance men of British indie music, Damon Albarn gets all the hype, but Tim Burgess is right up there, too. Burgess’ band, the Charlatans, long ago transcended their Madchester beginnings to become a British rock institution. He has published two well-received memoirs, started a record label and a non-profit pop-up coffee shop, and collaborated on albums with Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner and the experimental composer Peter Gordon. And, as if that weren’t enough, he inspired Kellog’s to create Totes Amazeballs cereal.
In fact, Burgess is so busy with so many artforms and collaborations that he actually made an entire album and then forgot to release it. The sessions that became As I Was Now took place between Christmas and New Year’s 2008. Burgess did some jamming and recording with a “dream band” which included My Bloody Valentine’s Debbie Googe, the Horrors’ Josh Hayward, Primal Scream, and Ladyhawke. Burgess apparently then simply assumed the results had been released… until Googe asked about them years later. They hadn’t, a situation that Burgess quickly remedied via his own O Genesis label.
It’s a good thing, too. At just nine songs, As I Was Now is short. It is not just a self-indulgence or curiosity for hardcore fans, although it doesn’t qualify as a “major work”, either. It’s a charming little album that reveals something new about the name on the cover.
While the very nature of its creation gives it something of a piecemeal feel, As I Was Now is almost always interesting, often and often engaging. If Burgess’ previous collaborations with the likes of Gordon or Crass’ Penny Rimbaud may have been difficult to get one’s head around, As I Was Now strikes a satisfying balance between his need to experiment and Burgess’ talent as someone who is known for making pop music.
Because it isn’t beholden to a particular trend or whim, the album sounds like it could have been recorded any time over the last decade. The last couple Charlatans albums, good as they are, have featured ultratight, clean production. As I Was Now, though it was recorded with regular Charlatans producer Jim Spencer, is looser and a bit more earthy.
Each track serves as its own little window into Burgess’ influences and tastes. Because those are deep and wide, the album is eclectic, but not overwhelmingly so. Psychedelic jams like “Clutching Insignificance”, with its imposing cathedral organ, might be expected. “Another Version of the Truth” is the track that sounds the most like the Charlatans. Along with “Many Clouds”, its driving rhythm and streamlined arrangement, not to mention melodica, immediately recall New Order, a band Burgess has made no secret of his admiration for (New Order’s Stephen Morris has been a fill-in drummer for the Charlatans). But “Another Version of the Truth” also has hints of Summerteeth-era Wilco, and “Many Clouds” is swathed in churning guitar that sounds straight from MBV or Swervedriver.
As I Was Now features even less-expected, and more charming, excursions. “Just One Kiss (One Last Kiss)”, with its Spectorian drumbeat and Brian Wilson-like warmth and naivety, might be the album’s highlight. With Ladyhawke lending to a sweet chorus and lyrics like “I have this one wish / You promised one last kiss”, it’s a more direct love song than Burgess has been known to write. “Inspired Again” is an off-kilter but effective meditation on stasis. “I am the child denied”, Burgess says, over Duffy’s lazily-winding piano progressions and fuguing organ. The album’s most surprising moments, though, are the pair of almost-instrumentals. “Nik V” is a motoric, pulsating post-punk/krautrock near-instrumental that recalls Joy Division without mimicking them. The closing “Take Me Places” is both peaceful and exotic, the lost soundtrack to a wide-angle sunrise shot in a dystopian sci-fi film. In an album so full of adventure, it’s almost surprising that only the psycho-folky “The Savages (A Table for Their Heads)” both overreaches and falls flat.
Burgess’ strengths as a lyricist have always been overlooked, but he again demonstrates his ability to turn a thoughtful, catchy phrase, as in “The world is full of sweet / But sweet is not for me” on “Many Clouds”. His voice has never demanded much attention, but it is youthful and agreeable as ever.
Despite its impressive cast of backing musicians As I Was Now is probably the most personal, revealing music Burgess has released in a long, varied career. In that sense, it’s a defining moment, even a decade on, and certainly a “lost album” worth finding.