The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Dean Blunt
The Narcissist II Charlie Fox , November 21st, 2012 08:32

The magic key turned out to be brain damage. "I got knocked the fuck out many a time. Blame boxing, that's why shit sounds the way it does."

Dean Blunt was telling The Guardian about an adolescence merrily spent getting TKO'd for money in the East End underworld and acquiring tape machines. He missed out its strangest detail, which he'd shared with The Wire a few months before: nights spent in a crew of boys, all of them dressed like DMX, with "bald heads and just sideburns." Then he called Berlin "the biggest coffee shop in the world" and began to forecast the apocalypse. All tantalising stories, true or false, but it was difficult not to fixate on that little scene. Lightning strikes! (and it does so throughout The Narcissist II, rumbles of thunder supplying sub-bass).

If you needed an explanation for the eerily serene sound that's unspooled across the Hype Williams/Dean Blunt & Inga Copeland patchwork from Do Roids And Kill E'rything over One Nation to this year's Black Is Beautiful, behold Dean Blunt, mind fried with a skull full of echo, "knocked the fuck out". Narcotics should take a bow here, too for their own much-loved effects of slowing time and dislocating space. But it's more than the regular ingestion of chemicals and hits to the head that makes these records so seductive. Blunt has conjured a hazy banquet out of allusions, riddles and games. Present across all his work is a demented aesthetic of dark humour and perverse appropriation (my favourite Hype Williams artefact is still the artwork for 'Healing Touch of A Sista' - Bart Simpson transformed into a psychotic centaur, joint drooping from his mouth). Previous sample sources include a reading of 'The Last Poem To Be Written' (epigraph courtesy of Ezra Pound) and the start of Black Sabbath's 'Sweet Leaf' screwed until puked from a stoned bear. Then contemplate the unique texture of the tracks themselves, strange and jellylike, surrounded by a twilit haze, and recall their powers of secrecy, which ensure that no answers will be forthcoming. Things only grow curiouser and curiouser. The Narcissist II is half an hour in another strange place. Originally released over the internet as a mixtape, it's a set of strung-out soul tracks, all unnamed, here remastered and pressed on luxurious blue wax by Hippos In Tanks.

Last year, before the arrival of Black Is Beautiful, came the first Dean Blunt release: the Jill Scott Herring O.S.T. (world-class double pun), a red cassette on Trilogy Tapes, only a hundred of which were pressed. Distant from what's gathered here, it was still a beguiling treat. Seventeen minutes (all reproduced exactly on the B-side - ho ho) of staggered bell tolls, jagged hits of surf guitar, crows cawing and Copeland singing like Kim Gordon at her most 'Addicted to Love', blank and braindead. It sounded like an outtake from a Manson family album. But hints of this record are scattered throughout Hype Williams' bewitching oeuvre. Check '9' on Black Is Beautiful where a slowed-down bad boy brags, "shoulda gone home to the wife / but I never got head like that in my life" over a bleary whirl of fairground synth, or 'The Sniper' (apparently taken from The Narcissist and rehoused to the enormous Attitude Era mixtape') where Blunt stumbles in, voice set between a forlorn falsetto and a sleepy mumble, while The Smiths writhe through 'Girl Afraid': "I'm just a ghost/ so forget about me…"

The Narcissist II contains a similar mix of dark lust and loneliness. It might be a punkish defacement of soul music or a lo-fi homage (as always, it's a sly combination of the two). Attempts to figure out exactly how much seriousness and irony is present in this record are doomed and foolish. So what if it's all a game? Melancholy and mischief are never far away from one another. Think of Ol' Dirty Bastard dressed up like Rick James on the sleeve of Nigga Please, indulging in a little imitation that recalls Blunt's DMX crew. On the record itself he proceeds to cover James' 'Cold Blooded' and Billy Holiday's 'Good Morning Heartache' and spook you in the process: it's not exactly a joke, it's darker than that. The same mood runs through The Narcissist II. There's A Riot Goin' On by Sly and the Family Stone is a presence here, too, the originator of that blitzed, uncannily translucent sound. (Incidentally, that record contains a little piece of Narcissistic mischief: the title track is exactly zero seconds long - a ghost song.)

It starts with some dark sound: horror-score organ, thunder growling, our ears cocked to a fight. "Talk to me!" the girl pleads. "I can't talk to you - you too busy," the boy barks back, "I'm trying to follow my dream…" (What film is this plucked from? A nasty ghetto drama about domestic violence and a girl who longs to be a star. They make guest appearances throughout.) The excerpt ends with a thunderclap and a punch in the face. Soon we're inside a dream, led there by the familiar drone that staggers through much of their work. "Girl, come with me…," Blunt doing a gentle serenade while doped angels murmur at the margins. It's surprising how normal it all sounds, like a sort of vague mid-afternoon psychedelia, all beach scenes and honey, until you notice the underlying air of disquiet, the lukewarm sun and endings in mid-flight, with everything coated in a weird caustic fur. Soon they seem like distant relations to the freaks from The Residents' Commercial Album.

The second side is bleak, a spellbinding, sorrowful little domestic record of Blunt wallowing in gloom. Distant fireworks, phone-calls made whilst fucked-up, spectral beats and drowsy requests all stagger over one another ("can I caress this… girl?").

"Come back here! You want me out yo' life?" the couple's fight concludes over circling sirens and tragic orchestration and, as if there's some barely legible correspondence between that and The Narcissist, in drifts Inga Copeland to begin a duet about the breakdown of a relationship. Exit music comes in the shape of 'I Float Alone' by Julee Cruise, the Twin Peaks songbird. Everything's nocturnal, slow and sad: Blunt's voice slurred and shivering, something little more than a wrecked gasp. "Do you recognise me, girl? I phone you every night, girl…" He wanders through the gloom while Copeland murmurs, high above like a phantom. The effect is gorgeously sad, only intensified by the surrounding feel of numbness and hopeless longing. Lovesickness becomes an unbearable sort of withdrawal, haunted by "dreams of ringing voices" (a line from Tricky's 'Poems', a track they might recognise).

Then things slip back through weed smoke towards the summer dreams of August '97 - scene set by a shaky, cracked-out voice to a backdrop of bright 'Vicky Park funfair' noise where The Narcissist, suddenly an East London MC, prowls after his girl, all fiery-eyed and lusty ("that sweet apple bottom gonna get candied"), all to a sinister children's gameshow theme, assisted by deranged rave horns… and fade out.

Part of the potency in this music comes from the confusion it induces, the fascination only intensified by bewilderment. But it's extraordinarily elegant, too. You get the drift, and often that's better than hearing things loud and clear. I remember reading a boxer (maybe it was Will Smith rehearsing for the failure of Ali? Memory's gone…) describing the pleasure of a loss: "Knocked out… knocked out is a beautiful place to be". Amen.