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Marc Almond
Orpheus In Exile: The Songs Of Vadim Kozin John Tatlock , September 8th, 2009 13:18

There's nothing in long-forgotten Russian torch singer Vadim Kozin's songs that refers to Orphic mythology; nonetheless, Almond's choice of title for his set of English language interpretations is beautifully apt.

In many versions of the tale, Persephone, queen of the underworld, only once bent the rules and allowed a soul to leave. Orpheus, distraught after the death of his wife Eurydice, had roamed Hades singing his laments, which Persephone found so plaintively beautiful as to elicit her sole moment of apparent mercy. She struck a deal with Orpheus, agreeing that the pair could return to the world of the living, as long as Orpheus agreed to walk in front of Eurydice and not look back until they had both departed the afterlife.

In accordance with the Road Runner cartoon unfairness of Greek mythology – a set of parables seemingly designed to remind the reader that the Gods are arseholes – Orpheus predictably does happen to glance back a little bit too early, and Eurydice is destroyed forever. One presumes Persephone did this primarily for "teh lulz".

Kozin's story is no less bleakly romantic and maddeningly unjust. A major star in Soviet Russia throughout the 20s and 30s, he then went on to serve as a Bob Hope-style troop entertainer during World War II, even providing the entertainment after a meeting of the "big three" of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin.

His popularity was distasteful to Stalin, however, for a number of reasons – not least the subversive content of his songwriting and his barely-hidden homosexuality. Head of the NKVD and notorious sadist Lavrentiy Beria reputedly approached him with the trick question of why his songs did not celebrate Stalin. It seems unlikely that Kozin did not know where this was headed, and he gave the joking response that songs about Stalin did not suit tenor voices. This was deemed sufficient insubordination for him to receive a five-year prison sentence, which was to be served in the horrifically harsh Kolyma Gulag near the town of Magadan, itself the regional centre for the distribution of prisoners into Siberian labour camps.

The Kolyma camps were about as close to a real world Hades as you could hope to get, with even the long railroad to the place littered with the corpses of those who'd starved on the way. Hard labour, purposeless torture and randomly selected executions to control numbers were all regular features of life in Kolyma.

Kozin's fame and widely adored singing voice were to be his protection, however, as he was drafted by the Politburo into a ghoulish travesty of his wartime entertainer role, touring the different camps to perform for prisoners, guards, and high ranking official visitors.

Initially freed in 1950, he was promptly arrested again – this time on explicit charges of homosexuality – legally exiled, and sent straight back to Kolyma. Though released again several years later, there was never an official "rehabilitation" (as the state put it) and he remained in exile in Madagan until his death in 1994.

Which brings us, just about, to the music. Almond is no dilettante in this material; as recounted in his excellent autobiography Tainted Life, he's been touring in Russia extensively since the early 90s, and has already released a collection of songs in the Russian 'romance' tradition, recorded while living in Moscow earlier this decade (the sporadically excellent Heart On Snow LP).

Musically, Almond is plainly entirely serious about doing this idea justice, working his long term Muscovite collaborators Orchestra Rossiya and producer and arranger Alexei Fedorov. From that starting point, he's revamped Kozin's songs into either bawdy sing-alongs or sumptuous torch songs, and it works wonderfully; a respectful tribute and joyous celebration rather than an overly reverent imitation.

Vadim Kozin – 'Druzhba'

Marc Almond – 'Vadim Kozin'

All the above could reasonably lead you to expect a morose, melancholy collection, but what makes Kozin's songs most remarkable is the sheer defiant energy he derived from his experience. If "punk" is a description of the attitudinal qualities of a song, rather than a musical style, then the sweetly chiming opener 'Boulevards of Magadan' is just about the most punk song ever written. A post-exile vigorous two fingers in Moscow's direction, the song is a sarcastic declaration of faux-indifference. Kozin sardonically overstates the case for his "frosty land, fair and fine", declaring he would rather live nowhere else and absurdly elevating its "embodiment of courage" as superior even to "Parisian splendour".

Similarly audacious is the blatantly homoerotic 'Brave Boy', an up-tempo, swooning paean to "lips that girls would dream of kissing" and "skin like velvet, hair like silk". The final detail of "front-line shoulder straps and a gun upon his back" clarifies that the song is a straightforward glorification of same-sex liaisons within the Red Army; it's hard to conceive of a song more precisely designed to infuriate Stalin.

There's much more to Kozin than brazen cheek, though, as the following song, 'Day and Night', shows. A relentless rapid marching rhythm with lyrics built around fast repetitions of one-syllable words – Dust, dust, dust! Count, count, count! – describing the both the tedium and terror of "marching miles in foreign lands", it's a startlingly onomatopoeic piece of writing. Almond turns in a great vocal performance on this, sounding by turns terrified and furious, constantly driving the tempo forward.

Elsewhere, the ballads are more complex and less immediate, but no less fascinating. The aching 'When Youth Becomes a Memory' explores "the crazy dreams [that] will not come true", to be brooded over through "nights as long as Gypsy tales"; all the more chilling when you know Kozin's story.

'A Skein of White Cranes' is cut from the same cloth, an elaborate, moody investigation of a depressive's torpor, assembled from trivial details imbued with disproportionate significance: "a leaf clinging to my window pane [that] seems to read my heart"; the titular cranes "streaming to the south". For someone writing in the first half of the 20th century, Kozin had a strikingly cinematic pen.

Almond pitches his performances of this more sombre material just the right side of theatrical, conveying the right amount of gravitas without falling into the kind of po-faced "white man sings the blues" foolishness such a project could have easily become in lesser hands.

As dark as all this inevitably is, given the back story and subject matter of many of the songs, it would be inaccurate to suggest that it's in any way a dour or depressing listen. The songs herein are shot through with a spirit of defiance and genuine lust for life, and, well… lust; and Almond's interpretations are abundant in those very qualities. As the closing 'Letter From Magadan' implores, regardless of the multitude of horrors encountered en route, "please don't go / so many songs have not been sung yet / the voice of life still rings in every guitar string".

Over the years, Almond's artistic choices have veered from the dazzling to the quixotic, but one thing he never is, is boring. That he continues to dodge the cosy 80s pop nostalgia circuit and lazy national treasure status that could so easily be his, preferring to produce work as unusual and essential as this, would be praise-worthy even if the end result were a noble failure. But Orpheus In Exile is both a career highlight and a unique window on a marginalised and hidden history.