Saturday, March 30, 2013

The single green shoot of Spring

Europe is cold. No matter which part of the continent you find yourself, it is as cold as the proverbial sorceress mammary gland. Brass monkeys. 'Taters. Choose your analogous epithet.

In Europe's southern half, where I currently find myself, it is not only cold and wet, but economically freezing.

In the northern half, the Old World equivalent of Punxsutawney Phil has declared the sixth ice age back on and has buggered off back to the warmth of his lair.

This should be the first weekend of Spring: lambs should be gambolling in daffodil-edged fields, country strolls should be protected by clothing measured by layer, not tog rating, and Easter egg hunts should not require ice picks and crampons.

But no. We shiver. We shudder. We pull the duvet up over our heads and vow to stay there until something changes outside.

Into this bleak landscape, however, pokes one green shoot hinting at winter's eventual demise: Understated by the blessed Edwyn Collins. Given his recent history (if you missed it, in 2005 Collins suffered two brain haemorrhages that very nearly finished him off), Collins could release an EP of him just playing the spoons and that will be enough for those of us of a certain age to be happy.

Such winsomeness in blokes like me, hanging on to life's supposed midpoint, is that Edwyn Collins had a small but significant part to play in our social development. The 1980s were a bleak time to be British. Our country was being run by a mad woman who was a cross between Hyacinth Bouquet and, well, Hyacinth Bouquet. And that is not something any country wants. Even Italy.

As we progressed through our teenage years, we gradually shed our pre-pubescent musical interests in rock bands whose logos could be sown onto our army-surplus napsacks, and we took interest in bands that were a little more chirpy, and thus, could be enjoyed in the company of girls, which would subsequently end in snog action. This didn't always work out so, but the theory behind it couldn't be faulted.

However, we couldn't or wouldn't part company with proper bands. Bands with guitars and drums and, you know, instruments. So, since we would never allow ourselves to acknowledge the legitimacy of electronic bands or dance music (kind of like Hamas recognising Israel), we latched on to the likes of Collins' Orange Juice, his compatriot Roddy Frame's Aztec Camera, The Blow Monkeys and Lloyd Cole. All of whom, I've just realised, are Scottish.

But let's skip past the frankly unedifying collective image of the thirty years past to hail this, Edwyn Collins' second album since his brush with the Reaper, which sees his self-confidence come on leaps and bounds

Eight years after virtually teaching himself to walk, talk and play guitar all over again, Understated is as bright and breezy as Sarah Greene in a dayglo puffball skirt (happenin' 80s reference there kids!), and as emphatic as a Welsh male voice choir in full muster.

Collins' ability to blend languid melody with frisky guitar pop (augmented by session musicians due to his continued difficulties playing the instrument) hasn't diminished, but in addressing his medical experiences through his songwriting, he has added a distinct husk to his music.

Understated is a consummate pop album, rooted around the guitar but drawing references and influences from across the musical spectrum, including Motown (Too Bad, That's Sad), ballad (Love's Been Good To Me) Northern Soul (the title track) and country (the delightful Carry On, Carry On). Over this canvas, Collins doesn't stray too far from addressing the aftermath of his illness. But not to wallow.

Some of the time he's extending a single-fingered salute to nature's cruelty, at other times he's simply self-depreciating. But at no time does he descend into self-pity. Quite the opposite. As he sings on the Velvet Underground-like Forsooth, "I feel alive, I feel reborn".

If your sole experience of Edwyn Collins has been Orange Juice's Rip It Up 30 years ago (a storming live version is included on the iTunes deluxe edition of Understated) or A Girl Like You, Collins' timely hit at the height of Britpop, you won't be at a disadvantage listening to this album. The Caledonian post-punk spirit of Collins' breakthrough act is still in there, but three decades - and the last eight years in particular - have emboldened Collins. Understated is anything but, but with abundant variety and a warmth that, with a winter hanging around like a malingering teenager, is more than welcome.

Up yours, Death. And hats off Edwyn.

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