, December 7th, 2015 10:22
Like learning how to smile again. Like remembering summer in an ice age. It can be tricky to remember how to listen anymore, how to play music for pleasure without feeling played. I had to unlearn things to hear this. I had to waft away the fog of my own cynicism to truly see it. I had to, because I had fallen in love again. I had to because, almost-instantly and irrefutably, Futures had seeped into my cells like sunshine and started enacting magic. And when you love something and you tumble for it hard, when something affects you so completely like that, you'll change anything, even the hardest long-worn beliefs, in order to make room in your life for it. Partly, that wreckage and wonder that true love enacts is exactly what Futures is all about.
Just as most end of year polls are letting Kendrick through the door to be the tokenistic rap record of choice, I choose Futures as the one record, like Ian Crause last year and Juana Molina the year before that and Cats On Fire the year before that, that proves I'm not entirely dead to what independent music can mean. Like those records, Futures is outsider music that sounds like it should be Top Of The Pops. Like those records, it's not only the beautiful songs and textures that seal it to your heart. It's the generosity of spirit. It's the heart and the head. You can't fake that stuff. You can only feel it, and Futures is a fucking deluge.
Butterfly Child is the alias of maverick pop-genius Joe Cassidy, a bloke from Belfast with a voice that plugs you into the sky. In the early 90s a BC demo ended up getting heard by A.R.Kane, who spotted a kindred spirit, and got BC signed to Rough Trade and their own H.ark! label. The Toothfairy and Eucalyptus EPs came out on H.ark, the even better Ghetto Speak EP and debut LP Onamatopoeia' hipped those who heard them to Joe's startling mix of classic pop songwriting craft and dazzling studio confection. In 1995 I said, somewhat breathlessly, in Melody Maker of its follow-up, the Honeymoon Suite LP that it was the “record the term 'perfect pop' should have been invented for” - the approaching confines of Britpop (and no, not just my usual reverse-Midas-effect meddling) meant that by then Cassidy was keen to leave these blighted isles, and he found a home in Chicago, then LA, where he's been for the past decade. You can hear LA in this album, you can hear a pioneer spirit pushing out beyond land and into the ocean and then finally up into the aether.
Cassidy created the album entirely at his own Soft Explosives home-studio, assisted by a few close confederates including the Webb Brothers and Cal Campbell. No accident that the offspring of Jimmy and Glen would be involved because writing the kind of songs you will never forget is still what obsesses Joe Cassidy, is still what he manages to do every time he drops.
This is the biggest sounding BC record yet - opener 'Blind Me So I May See' is initially terrifying. The textures and sounds Cassidy has created in his home-studio are absolutely state-of-the-art and unafraid of sounding big, light as helium but big as a thunderstorm. For the past two decades such sounds, processed guitar, drum-machines, fuckloads-of-reverb, have been so effectively colonised by the mainstream I initially balked at the sheer size and luminescence of the sound. It took about a half-dozen listens before I could get over myself, but the sheer fact I could listen to it half a dozen times is testament to just what a fucking amazing songwriter Cassidy remains. He has this trick you thought was over, this ability you only credited the holy likes of Hal & Burt and Dozier & Holland and Jam & Lewis with before - the ability to put words and melodies into your head almost instantly without forcing the issue, without recourse to over-wrought hyperventilating, or the tonic-returning nursery-rhyme of so much pop in 2015.
'Still Learning To Crawl' lilts like a leaf on a breeze, the dewy acoustic and keys cushioning Cassidy's vocal perfectly. His voice is still like no-one else's, so good it sounds double-tracked when it isn't - putting hooks in your head always, on the sublime 'Playfair Steps' picking out those melodies inimitably BC, those melodies so strong it feels like you haven't sung along so loud in a lifetime.
Lyrically it'd seem the songs on Futures have been written at various times over the past 20 years, the words cutting from a youngster's desire to an older resignation wonderfully, with no sense of writing from a remove or a perspective on those different times in Cassidy's life - rather the dawning realisation that love can make us naively innocent and hard-boiled at the same time, that we are always a culmination of all that we've been. 'Our Delays' swims out on ravishing delayed (wit duly noted and appreciated) guitars but cuts from the verse to a wordless bridge and chorus that throws mountains and drama your way, before the pure signal that starts the song returns.
The epic 'No Longer Living In Your Shadow' recalls Eric Matthews and Swell - that retrieval of acoustic pop from the deliberately grainy and small-sighted to a higher promontory of pop possibility, a twangy guitar lick and slowly-encroaching synthetic textures & strings road-tripping you out into the distance, coming together like something off Bark Psychosis' Hex, albeit shot through with California sun, not London murk. 'Sheets Of Whitewashing Sun' is pure radiant wonder, strange Boards Of Canada-style beats and that sweet singing guitar again, an instrumental that bookends side 1 before 'A Shot In The Dark' starts side 2 deep in Jimmy Webb/Carpenters territory, verses that are pure Laurel Canyon, a chorus like a slo-mo explosion ("This ain't forever" he sings and you're right not to believe him), Cassidy wrestling with his purpose and hopes, the heartbreak of his Tin-Pan-Alley abilities stranded in a world where only visibility matters ("leave me a song to sing/it isn't much but it's something to get me through/ when I'm cracking/I know there's a point to this/ but I can't bring myself to explain it was fucked in the first place"). 'Night Music' strolls down a busy street in near-silence about a foot off the ground, the passing headlights, the backwards-moonwalking shadows flickering by in neon-waves, a hymn to irresolvable complexity and the way love lies to us about its solutions that's part Kraftwerk, part Blue Nile.
'Holding On' reminds you of the almost-impossible task Cassidy has set himself here. To make music immediate and clear and universal, like Bacharach and David and the Wrecking Crew and Spector, but to absolutely refuse to make that music sound retro or from any other time than right now. So every time you think you hear a motif that could be from a different age, Cassidy problematises any possible hint of the old-fashioned by making the textures entirely modern. A drum machine dominates Futures, there's not a single track that sounds in any way 'rootsy'. If he'd recorded 'Holding On' in a pared-down 'Live Lounge' sense, in that way so many current artists aim for that vintage 'authenticity' you sense he'd be uninterested - what's crucial to him is the belief that our lives now can similarly be captured in a timely and timeless sense by what is the state-of-the-art. Cassidy knows that most of the totems of supposed 'authenticity' in pop are usually in fact the result of studio-confection so songs like 'The Only Sound' and the title track 'Futures' sound like they were written on instruments but then rendered by pure imagination, storyboarded in cinematic strokes of indeterminate sourceless sound. The Bowery Electric/Labaradford-like 'Lost In These Machines' hums and shimmers like a valley full of pylons but still doesn't lose touch with the lover's heart at the centre of the lyric, the way love can sometimes feel like your only true connection in a world screaming about connectivity. Truly modern pop music. 'Beauty #2' closes things out on a stark string-quartet, the words sending you off into the night a little tipsy on flirtation, a little wider-eyed than you've been in awhile, a little bit in love.
There's been one other transmission from a great 'lost' 90s 'band' this year - Flying Saucer Attack's wonderful Instrumentals 2015. Like that record, Futures seems to advocate not a world-sized ambition but the importance of paying attention to detail, at home. Whereas the FSA album is an introspective mapping of memory, Futures is more open than that, sees the ocean, feels the sun, the sky, admits others. Both records, even though created in atmospheres of remove and isolation have a crucial and essential quality lacking in nearly all other guitar music pushed my way at the moment - you can hear the world happening, you get a sense of struggle in the creation of them, a sense of how each has negotiated its space alongside survival. Though about love, about intimacy, they are records that have the real world, the whole horror and wonder, constantly audible within and without them. Not overtly political records, but records where the world is a character, where love is clung to and obsessed about in the full realisation that outside the room, the studio, the world waits to pounce. This sense of place and space in Futures makes its suite of sumptuous love songs doubly poignant, turns them into glorious moments of both clarity and giddy disorientation amid the impending decay and desperation of time and events beyond the back door, the darkness glimpsed out on the horizon.The songs don't emerge as 'crafted' at all, rather you can't quite believe they didn't always exist in this form, that you're not just accidentally tuning in to some dream radio station you never knew existed. Crush on Futures completely. It's healed and heartened me like nothing else in 2015, black or white. This record is blue all over. And golden within.