As someone who has spent a good decade lavishing praise on/making excuses for Julian Cope’s music while so many of his old fans have wandered off in dismay at another Brain Donor CD, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised at being one of the very few people who enjoyed his show at Latitude last month. I blogged about this captivating spectacle at length over here, so won’t go into it all again now.
But it immediately came to mind when I put on Disc One of Cope’s latest opus, “Black Sheep”. “Come The Revolution” was one of two fully-formed songs that he managed to play at Latitude, just after the farcically extended soundcheck and just before the farcically extended version of “Sleeping Gas” that sent Cope – and, in the opposite direction, most of the audience – over the edge.
It’s a cracking song, which also echoes that Latitude performance with the new configuration of Cope’s sound: a thicket of predominantly acoustic guitars, massed Mellotrons and marching drums which is a lot more conspicuously “arranged” than the gonzoid metal he’s mainly been using to disseminate his ideas for the past few years (and a much better rethink than last year’s “You Gotta Problem With Me”).
The daftness and rock bombast are still present, of course – Cope has long believed that playing the Holy Fool (or Gnostic Fool, I guess) is the best way to present subversive concepts. But now he seems to have reconciled himself to a sort of fervid psychedelic pop music that many of us thought he’d generally abandoned years ago: “These Things I Know”, for instance, is a heinously catchy jangle that could have sat prettily on “Droolian” or “Skellington” – if it weren’t for the arch, “Everyone believes the Wiki,” line, of course.
As those of us who’ve stuck with him over the past few years will expect, “Black Sheep” is a lavishly-packaged artefact with copious notes and lyrics, and the music split across two CDs – it’d probably fit on one, but comes on two to recreate the olde vinyl experience. On the cover, Cope poses with his current band (featuring old hands Doggen and Holy McGrail as well as someone called, with profound mystical import, Big Nige) around Avebury’s stone circle. They look like a cross between Motorhead roadies and, less appealingly, some slightly dubious quasi-military sect (there are a few sinister army caps, and some red and black shields with an Isle Of Mannish three-legged logo on them that make me uncomfortable).
Cope, I’m sure, will explain what’s going on in time. What can be ascertained here is that, a) I’m beginning to think that this might be the best set of songs he’s come up with since “20 Mothers” in 1995 (though I’ll make a case for “Rome Wasn’t Burned In A Day” and “Citizen Cain’d” when I’m cornered; and b) that I’m beginning to get a bit tired of his stance on religion.
A good part of Cope’s position makes sense to me as an atheist: that much of what we know as organised religion is institutionally sexist and homophobic; that the teachings of a Jesus became “perverted”, as he puts it in the mighty Mellotron doom-drones of “The Shipwreck Of St Paul”, by St Paul (I always liked Stanley Spencer’s gripe that St Paul was the originator of, if I remember this right, “All that get-your-hair-cut nonsense”).
But a couple of things bug me. Religious tolerance strikes me as a pragmatic way to live and move forward, while Cope’s stance is epitomised by a quote on the sleeve – “When I wage war with the ones who wage war. Only then I’m at peace with myself” – and a “Bungalow Bill”-like singalong on Disc Two entitled “All The Blowing-Themselves-Up Motherfuckers (Will Realise The Minute They Die That They Were Suckers)”, which seems shall we say, a tad inflammatory.
Then there’s a homily in the CD booklet which justifies why he lets pagan deities off the hook while aiming both barrels at “Jehovah, Allah and the Christian God”, because, as I understand it, we’re Northern Europeans and those are Middle Eastern “Divine Phenomena”. It’s a tidy argument, and one familiar to long-term Cope obsessives, but one which ignores the fact that the idea of an indigenous faith is at best irrelevant, and at worst offensive, to a modern, mobile, multi-cultural community. Cope gets pretty close to suggesting that if you live in Britain and feel the need to worship a God, then you should worship a pagan, Northern European one – surely exactly the kind of dogmatism and intolerance which he purports, as a “Black Sheep” outsider, to despise?
Great tunes, problematic ideas I think.