Shaun Ryder’s weird artistic odyssey now appears to be forming some kind of pattern. Each new venture hits the ground running and burning with revolutionary intent, delivering words and music of mangled-up, category-defying magnificence (Happy Mondays’ Bummed and Pills’n’Thrills And Bellyaches, Black Grape’s It’s Great When You’re Straight… Yeah). Then the class-As begin to take their toll and words/music get sloppily, grossly self-indulgent and pitifully self-parodic (the Mondays’ Yes Please, the Grape’s Stupid Stupid Stupid). After which, Ryder downs tools and pretty much disappears from public gaze to concentrate on adding yet more lurid chapters to the ongoing soap opera that is his life.
Imagine Corrie directed by Quentin Tarantino and Vincent Gallo, with hair-raising plot twists involving drugs, guns, divorce, overdoses, rehab, car crashes, meetings with aliens, bankruptcy, psychic breakdowns, more drugs… That’s Ryder’s life. Then, just when his bonkers lifestyle threatens to eclipse all memories of his deranged musical legacy, back he bounces and, once more, all bets are on.
So it goes with his latest project, which sees him holed up for two years in Australia, fomenting mischief in a shed belonging to Perth-based producer Pete Carroll. Ryder and Carroll are joined by a trio of musicians (as well as, on several tracks, Stephen Mallinder of Cabaret Voltaire) including the excellently-named Lucky Oceans, whom older readers will recall from ’70s country boys Asleep At The Wheel.
If there’s any 10-gallon influence on these eight tracks, Ryder’s band are keeping it well camouflaged. As you might expect, though, just about every other genre and sub-genre is included in the general mash-up. At a time when much scholarly ink is being spilled over the brainwave of “soundclash”, in where two songs from different musical genres are spliced together to make a single atom, it’s worth remembering that Happy Mondays used to sound like six different bands playing six different songs at once.
It might have been put together in a shed, but so dark and seedy and drug-addled does it sound that Amateur Night In The Big Top might as well have been cooked up in a Moss Side crack den. Reports of Ryder adopting a pipe-and-slippers lifestyle in Oz have been exaggerated, at least on the evidence of this latest stream of derailed consciousness.
Opener “The Story” has Ryder gibbering about a Persian-necking weekend to the accompaniment of a pounding rhythm that drills into your skull like a dose of ketamine. At which point you might as well fasten those seat-belts for this trip to the hinterland beyond the reaches of sanity. Which is what this is right up to the finishing line, although closer “In 1987” finds Ryder in rare reflective mood, longing for the lost pre-Madchester Eden when “the MDMA was pure”. Between these startling bookends, he sounds like a man living beyond the edge of himself, trapped but strangely liberated by the realisation there is nothing left for him to lose.
Ryder’s barking raps tell of futures narrowing, of inner cities overrun by headless zombies, of short-cut escapes (drugs, cheap sex, fast entertainment) leading to dark cul-de-sacs rank with the stench of death and decay. As on the nightmarish, spaced-out dub of “Monster”, or the funked-off paranoia of “Long Legs (Parts 1,2,3)” where Ryder sounds like a man grabbing onto the jump-leads of anxiety because there’s nothing left to hold. It’s terrifying, exhilarating stuff. “Where do you think you’re going with that big red fucking nose,” he wonders on “Clowns”, a rare moment of levity. And this in a song all about the pathological fear of being beaten to death by circus turns.
And there you have it. Another wildly implausible Shaun Ryder comeback. Just when we needed one. All things considered, you wouldn’t want to be inside his head. But there’s times when you need him inside yours.
Fear for his sanity and his general wellbeing, by all means. But embrace his demented soul vision. Because it speaks some uncomfortable truth which, in its own fucked-up way, reasons the way ahead.
See Shaun Ryder Q&A, page 74