Beneath This Burning Shoreline
, July 6th, 2010 11:25
Three years have past since Cherry Ghost achieved an omnipresence...be it on mainstream radio or in the live arena. For a while they were difficult to escape. One whould chance upon them in support to Amy Winehouse or Doves, or catch them booming through a heartfelt set in a Latitude tent with Simon Aldred's distinctive vocals skimming across the grass, drawing in the stragglers. A haunting accessibility and a powerful stock of songs that clustered on Thirst for Romance, the most promising debut album of 2007.
Mainstream success seemed inevitable. Even Terry Wogan hailed them as a new Mancunian hope. Not since (spit three times, turn around) Simply Red's 1985 emergence had a Manchester band seemed so primed for the centre ground. Given that they were managed by the same team that guided Doves to a blissful state of 'success-without-celebrity', surely Cherry Ghost would break through at a canter? They even grabbed an Ivor Novello award before denting public acceptance.
However, the expected career trajectory faltered a little as the brisk early album sales started to slow. This was an unexpected moment and, even for full-blooded converts such as myself, songs that had seemed gloriously essential suddenly lost that initial shine. It also dawned on me - just today - that I hadn't revisited that album since that moment.
And so, by the close of 2007, while you could still hear, say, the hyper poppy 'Mathematics' on a spread of radio, this ungainly looking band were hardly cracking the charts with Hucknall-esque aplomb. Maybe just as well for a band named after a line in a song from Wilco's most experimental album ('Theologians', from A Ghost is Born). That, at least hinted that Aldred was blessed with a muse that liked to dismantle the standard song format. Who knows? Cherry Ghost could be heading for an I Am Kloot-style state of cultish understatement? It seemed unlikely at the time but here, now with a deeper, darker and more demanding second album, one is beginning to wonder.
What has changed here is sheer lyrical depth. Indeed Simon Aldred's vocals now spit relentless and intriguing description. The accompanying press release here likens this to 'fine southern gothic novel' and, while that might seem glib - and there is very little going on here that can be regarded as southern - the themes that shine through are not the kind of things that one often encounters on Radio Two. The big ones are in evidence....death, sex, religion all further spiked with suicide, domestic abuse, black pyschedelia...oh and a bit of nifty skiffle. Ok so we are not quite talking Lou Reed's Berlin but we are motoring along those lines and this, frankly, is precisely the opposite of any expectations I had from a band so delicately poised on the brink of the kind of mass-market that would see even the drummer forever housed in a converted barn in Cheshire. What on earth are they playing at?
Well, I am certainly not complaining. Sliding closer to The Velvet Underground than to Simply Red can only be applauded although, to achieve such a thing, one has to retain a certain degree of prettiness.
But prettiness married to dark thematic lyrics - a Lou Reed staple - is not necessarily the end result here. For there is an unsettling nature to many of these new Cherry Ghost songs and it is so precariously balanced between lush soulful beauty and a less attractive desire to make an impact. Nevertheless, there is hope. On 'The Night they Buried Sadie Clay' - which is not nearly as Stetson-donning as the title suggests - Aldred slows to funereal pace and recounts the life of a woman who remained positive, artistic and joyous until her final moments... the surging point is one of hope. By contrast, the album's most immediate moment, 'Black Fang' (yes, this is the one to play over and over while driving through a thunderstorm in Hebden Bridge) is stompingly cheery and neatly odds with the prevailing heavy heart. Curious to note that 'Black Fang' sits 10 songs into this impressive collection and, by the time you emerge there, you will have travelled pretty much the full gamut of human...or at least, Mancunian emotion. The geography is important, for this is a rainy collection from the outset, where 'We Sleep On Stones' creeps up on you with disarming simplicity. Indeed, it sounds like it might have been the first song Aldred might have ever written... a beautifully contained affair which sees the singer finding the voice... a marching melancholia. It may not have the wit and personal attack of Guy Garvey or, equally elevant, the percussive attack of Doves, but Aldred is perfectly happy to slip out of genre, even into a few uncomfortable passé areas to force the message across.
I joked earlier about Berlin, but it must be noted that 'Only a Mother' does sit within the terrifying borders of heavy domestic abuse, where the sheer thought of approaching some objective heart outside of the relationship only increases the terror. Here (perhaps) lies the true heart of 'Cherry Ghost' for, while Aldred's beloved Jeff Tweedy might find release by dismantling his own melodies, Aldred prefers to use lyrical force to achieve a similar effect: novelistic, indeed and a long, long way from the lilting fringe of the mainstream. Nowhere on popular radio could the courageously blasphemous 'My God Betrays' surely exist. Such emotive surges are usually wisely contained. How darkly surreal it seems to hear it in a state of melodic undulation. Good to surrender to. Northern heart, black thoughts, eerie surreal dreaming.