Monday, September 21, 2015

Comfortable? Yes. Numb? Not quite…: David Gilmour - Rattle That Lock

As qualified students of This Is Spinal Tap know only too well, solo projects can be torturous, laboured exercises in vanity imbued with a touch of petulance.

Some, though, unleash talents hitherto hidden by stronger forces in the mother band. A case in point is George Harrison who, having accepted his place amid the creative river of molten magma that was L&M, erupted through a fissure with his own release of tectonic pressure, the extraordinary three-disc All Things Must Pass.

Though he was to never, really, hit such highs again in his solo career, when playing the Fab fan's parlour game of choice - Which Beatle Had The Best Solo Career - Harrison's full first album on his own usually edges the McCartney catalogue for brilliance, while McCartney generally edges Lennon for consistency. Ringo also made a few, apparently.

I only raise this since David Gilmour has just released Rattle That Lock, his fourth solo album in 37 years, the slackard, and in the wake of declaring Pink Floyd formally over with the release of The Endless River, last year's collection of unused Division Bell material, embellished and released, rather like a "pre-owned" BMW as 'nearly new'.

Gilmour's self-titled solo debut appeared in 1978 amid the widening Floyd power struggle between himself and Roger Waters, and it showed. Though lacking any of the obvious spite that Lennon and McCartney traded in their post-Beatle releases, it was patchy and unfocused and seemed more of an exercise, like The Endless River, of emptying the proverbial store cupboard of odds and sods that hadn't been deemed usable by the band.

Rattle That Lock, however, appears some 21 years after that last Floyd album proper and indeed a full ten years since Gilmour's own last studio album, On An Island. With only an extensive tour of that record and a few guest appearances (as disparate as The Orb and Ben Watt) to show for his time in clover, Rattle That Lock should represent a dam wall's breach of inspiration. In fairness, it isn't, but that doesn't mean it's a bad album at all.

Compared with its predecessor, there is more frivolity, both musically and lyrically (Gilmour's wife, the novelist Polly Samson, continues to provide words, writing for five of the album's seven non-instrumental tracks). No more is this so than the title track. On the one hand, Rattle That Lock is a Chris Rea-ish dad dance of a song: Gilmour himself admits that its rhythmic foundation was the frilly "berling-bling-bah-da" jingle that heralds announcements at French railway stations (he'd heard it at Aix-en-Provence station and sampled it on his iPhone) and that it had "made him want to dance".

On the other hand, and as its lyrics (inspired by Book 2 of Milton’s Paradise Lost) do say, "rattle that lock, lose those chains”, Gilmour does seem to be loosening himself from the legacy of Pink Floyd’s tendency towards the melancholy and to live a little. "It’s quite late in life to start finding one's feet, I must admit," he told Uncut magazine recently. "Or at least, to find them again." That even means a remix by Youth, no less, on the album's ‘deluxe edition’. Fancy that - a remix of "Pink Floyd's Dave Gilmour". He'll be 70 next year, and with his whispy white hair and beard starting to resemble Ernest Hemingway in his dotage. You can allow him some overdue indulgence.

There is a loose concept behind the album - that of an unnamed man's day. OK, not the most outré premise, but it provides a rough canvas from which to start with the familiar territory of the instrumental 5am. Ironically, perhaps, Roger Waters' first post-Floyd album, The Pros And Cons Of Hitchhiking, was built around the real-time period of a man in mid-life crisis dreaming between, precisely, 4:30:18 and 5:12am.

Gilmour’s 5am provides, possibly, via the intention of its sequencing, a sonorous reminder of its author being ‘the guitar of Pink Floyd’, with its Shine On You Crazy Diamond, 'dawn of time' synth wash and "haunting"™ two-note guitar motif. The album ends with another instrumental, And Then... which tumultuous orchestration adding texture, rather than any bombast, to an appropriate bookend to complement the opening.

The folkish, acoustic Faces Of Stone - which sort of recalls John Lennon’s Working Class Hero in its bucolic pace - digs at age-driven reflection, with Gilmour recalling in his own words how “We sat on the roof, the night overflowed/No more was said but I learned all I needed to know.” Nostalgia reappears in the cod jazz of The Girl In The Yellow Dress, a hat-tip, perhaps, to the music of his childhood home, before he discovered the rock and the roll. It is harmlessly charming, with Jools Holland’s ivories supplying slowed down woogie sans boogie, if a little contrived, as if to defy those expecting an album of soaring Comfortably Numb guitar solos.

Gilmour’s bluesy fluidity has quite rightly been hailed down the years, and from a technical point of view, I’ve always been amazed that his playing has never elevated him higher in the lists that guitar enthusiast magazines frequently generate. What should, though, not be forgotten is that Gilmour continues, at 69, to possess one of the most under-rated voices in rock music.

In Pink Floyd, his mellifluous falsetto often poured oil on the vinegar of Water’s nasal, somewhat manic voice. Here, Gilmour’s voice is wonderfully honeyed. On the beautiful A Boat Lies Waiting it is augmented - and perfectly so - in close harmony by Graham Nash and David Crosby (who sang on the On An Island title track).

The track is a warm tribute to Rick Wright - often and correctly regarded as the Floyd’s George Harrison, and whose keyboards added so much to its legacy - who died of cancer in 2008 having completed the full tour for On An Island, even while ill. While far from being mawkish, A Boat Lies Waiting is a tender farewell - "What I lost was an ocean/Now I'm drifting through without you/In this sad barcarolle", with Wright himself making a ghostly spoken appearance via an audio clip much like that of Floyd roadie Roger "The Hat" Manifold on The Dark Side Of The Moon’s Us And Them, which Wright wrote, of course.

The Guardian somewhat sniffily described Rattle That Lock as being "weighed down by its own opulence", and while there is some validity to that charge, the review's concluding snark of too much "muso virtuosity" was way off the mark. Gilmour's guitar playing has always been part of - as he says himself - the "palette" that defines him. A zillion record sales in almost 50 years says that this hasn't been disregarded, and given the expanse that he covered with Pink Floyd in that band’s history, it would be insanely counter-intuitive for him to have handed in an album of cautious restraint and obtuse, obscure instrumentation.

For some Floyd heads, it will take a long time to accept the band’s end, even if they ceased to be a creative force a long, long time ago. I doubt, though, that Gilmour is all that interested in trying to attract a new following, but in his fourth outing as a solo artist, he has edged ever-so vaguely away from the place in which he forged his reputation, and, as he prepares for his eighth decade, has rattled the locks that tied him to it.

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