Less is infinitely more for the man who invented indie…
“I have been a rover, I have walked alone,” quavers Edwyn Collins, closing his second record since suffering two serious strokes in 2005 with an incongruous rendition of Rod McKuen’s “Love’s Been Good To Me”.
It’s the sort of last-orders warhorse that the floppy-fringed Collins might have referenced obliquely in his Orange Juice pomp as he stalked the margins between the classic and the kitschy in a Davy Crockett hat. Here, though – backed by an acoustic guitar and what sounds like a Joe Meek theramin whine – he throws everything he has at it, battling to hold on as his voice cracks around the high notes. You’re waiting for the twist – the wink and the knowing grin – and, as with the rest of Understated, there really isn’t one.
Those bewitched by the playful Edwyn Collins of “You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever” or the ironic subversions of his Britpop-era second wind might find Understated hard going. Musically, it is business as usual – out-on-the-floor, stack-heeled indie stompers all the way – but if 2010’s stark Losing Sleep was a little on the abrupt side, this is more concise still.
Collins has recovered his vocabulary since his strokes (at one stage, his only four coherent phrases were “yes”, “no”, “Grace Maxwell” – the name of his wife and manager – and “the possibilities are endless”) but has ruthlessly streamlined his songwriting lexicon. “My lyrics are now simple – backward, maybe,” he said. “They used to be very flowery. Now they’re direct and focused and repetitious and precise.”
He can say that again, and if Understated is anything to go by, he will. For here is a record where economy – of language, of ideas – is a virtue. Having struggled for life, the simple act of being is mined relentlessly for subject matter, but amid Collins’ drive to document simple, universal truths, the tiny flourishes illuminate the one-time draftsman’s craftsmanship; the life-or-death double-entendre of ‘Dilemma’s refrain “that’s me all over”; the deadpan Otis Redding lift of “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day” on “Baby Jean”; the syntactical twists that stretch “the question of what you do, what you see are integral to life in my point of view” over four lines in uptempo stomper “Carry On, Carry On”.
What epiphanies that come, meanwhile, are elegantly undersold. He measures his pop career matter-of-factly on “31 Years” and acknowledges his teenage days as a graphic artist with the Glasgow parks department on the title track, breaking into what seems like a torrent of emotion by comparison on “Forsooth” – a classic Collins word if ever there was one – as he enjoys a lazy morning around the house. “I’m so happy to be alive,” he repeats over a mesmeric Velvet Underground buzz, descending into what comes close to a Van Morrison-circa-Astral Weeks rapture with the reiterated phrase “I feel alive and I feel reborn”.
Given the brisk manner in which he documents his life elsewhere (“Back to life, back to hope,” on the cheery “Too Bad (That’s Sad)” – “to and fro, back to work,” on the smoky “It’s A Reason)” it’s an unexpectedly cathartic moment, all the more so as he is not one given to gush. For all of his reputation as a jangly romantic – Jonathan Richman with the sappy swapped for savvy – Collins is a supremely controlled writer, even his wordiest masterworks littered with pomposity-busting asides and obfuscatory single inverts.
Understated dispenses with all those frills and curlicues, and if it does not offer unbridled emotion, its quiet determination strikes a dramatic enough minor chord. “I’ve got music to see me through, I’ve got art to ease the pain,” Collins explains on ‘Baby Jean’, staking out the margins of his new territory once more. No longer so clever maybe, but indubitably wise.
You sound like a very positive person: is that a fair assessment?
It’s fair, certainly. I wake up in a cheerful mood every day, because I have a great life. I’m lucky, I guess. I feel it.
Words pop into my head, single words, then I try to bend them into a song. “Understated, hmmm, let’s see, an interesting idea. My career, perhaps?” But no, actually I’m not at all understated! I’m a show-off.
“Forsooth” is extraordinary: can you talk us through it?
Obviously, it’s a Velvets reference. But it’s still all mine. I like the chant feel to it. And ironically, “I feel alive, I feel reborn.” As opposed to “Heroin……”
Has the process of writing songs changed since your stroke?
Oh yes. Lyrically, more direct and to the point. That’s fine – I have no choice, and I like it. Music? I can only play a little now, but all the notes and chords flow easily enough in my brain. My musician friends get my intent, no problem there. I sing them the parts, choose the effects, arrange the instruments. We collaborate, it’s brilliant.
“Love’s Been Good To Me” is an odd choice of cover.
I used to sing it ten years ago, acoustically. I love Rod McKuen, and the Sinatra version. It’s just a beautiful song. Ten years ago, I loved to play it on the guitar, especially.
INTERVIEW: JIM WIRTH