Wild Mercury Sound

Kevin Ayers' The Unfairground

John Mulvey

It's been a couple of months since I wrote about Robert Wyatt's excellent "Comicopera", which still isn't out until October. In the meantime, one of Wyatt's old sparring partners has sneaked under the wire ahead of him. Kevin Ayers, of all people, has a new album out at the start of September, and it's rather good.

Apparently, this is the first Ayers album for about 15 years, though I must admit I haven't followed his career very assiduously. In fact, I'm not sure I've ever heard anything by him beyond those first four lovely solo albums. Consequently, I guess this won't be the most informed, heavily contextualised preview I've ever written.

From what I can tell, Ayers seems to have been mooching about the south of France for an extraordinarily long time, probably doing not much more than some fairly concerted wine-tasting. We spent a while yesterday trying to work out what he lives on - does he have independent means, maybe? But Ayers always comes across as one of those charming, insouciant wasters who sort of glide through life untroubled by the dreary realities that trouble the rest of us.

In fact, listening to "The Unfairground", Ayers tackles angst, romantic mishaps and fear of ageing with a sort of rueful shrug. I've seen his voice compared to Nick Drake in the past, and while's there's a certain fruity Englishness which they both share, Ayers doesn't really do grief. On "Cold Shoulder" here, he ponders, "I don't understand anything any more as I grow older." But even then, he carries off something approaching depression with a peculiar jauntiness.

I guess in the past, Ayers' main weapon against the black-eyed dog was whimsy. But on "The Unfairground", the quirks have mostly mellowed out into a more reflective archness. There are moments of oddness; the title track's skittish fairground music being the most obvious.

Mostly, though, Ayers ambles through these gently beguiling songs like an old rogue who has fallen into the company of some indulgent new friends. A lot of the music here is provided by The Ladybug Transistor - a New York band whose gifts for indie-baroque have previously been undermined by some fairly weedy songwriting - and a staunch bunch of janglers corralled by Teenage Fanclub's redoubtable Norman Blake.

I think it's Blake, Euros Childs and co adding distantly roistering harmonies to the great "Run Run Run". But elsewhere, Ayers calls on older friends. Robert Wyatt guests as The Wyattron, a heavily treated harmony on "Cold Shoulder" that recalls Eno's metamorphosis into the Enotron on Wyatt's own records. Phil Manzanera, another of Wyatt's crew, adds some faintly threatening freak-out in the background of "Brainstorm". By Ayers' standards, this one glowers intensely. But even when he sings, "Shout! Scream! Give me back my dreams," he sounds too amused to be angry.

Best of all, the elusive Bridget St John duets on "Baby Come Home", a romantic gambol with the rich brass band trim that's a hallmark of this whole, immensely pleasant record. Corny fuck that I am, I'll be taking this on holiday to the South-West of France with me in a couple of weeks. A bientot. . .


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