Wednesday, February 01, 2006

graham coxon - love travels at illegal speeds

It never pays to laud a record too early; two things can happen - the first is that you marvel on first listen, get all evangelical and then never tune in again. The second is that you set a precedent for objectivity which looks increasingly stupid as the month goes on. It's a bit dangerous giving a record 10/10 in January and calling it the best album of the year when a better one could very easily come along a week later. It's especially daft, thinking about it, to call a record the '5th best album of all time' the week it is released, as the NME may one day find when they look back on the fact that they awarded the Arctic Monkeys record that same accolade a week or to ago.

I'm not trying to undo the deserved praise which I handed out to Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I Am Not; I still think that's a great record. But I've spent the last couple of days immersed in Graham Coxon's forthcoming Love Travels At Illegal Speeds and - again, I'm wary of making claims for it which I'll regret later - it's on a whole different level to the Monkeys record. Granted, this is Coxon's 12th album (he's racked up six solo records a lot quicker than Blur managed their first half-dozen) and so you'd expect him to have nailed his sound and grown enormously as a songwriter. But then how many artists can make an record 11 albums into their career which sounds as fresh and energetic as anything a bunch of 19 year olds can manage?

Love Travels at Illegal Speeds is an absolute joy. Each Coxon record has been a progression from the last, but most have been dizzily eclectic and varied - only on 2004's decent Happiness In Magazines did it sound like he was moving towards a level of consistency. But this time round all 13 songs are both tremendously self-contained and perfectly in sequence. Ostensibly an album about the many colours of love, here Coxon focuses on two approaches; fast, snotty power-pop which references the Buzzcocks and The Who, and gorgeous, melodic melancholia which recalls nothing so much as, well, Blur.

The album opens with Coxon in a familiar frame of mind, observing 'a thousand grey waves breaking over me'. But lead-off single 'Standing On My Own Again' isn't a slice of dreary self-pity but rather a 'Freakin' Out' style burst of adrenelin, a propulsive bass line and coruscating riff matched by a snotty, confident vocal. If McFly recorded this it'd be number one forever. 'I Can't Look At Your Skin' is even better, a hilarious, angsty slice of punk-pop which finds Graham yelping "I can't look at your skin / 'cos it's doin' me in". From that point on the album is packed with lovely, biting pop music and Coxon's naive and lovelorn vocals documenting what sounds like the theme music to Tucker's Luck. Considering he's 36 it's incredible what an ear he has for 'teenage kicks', even if it's all rather nostalgic.

The first two tracks, along with 'Tell It Like It Is', 'You And I', and a handful of others scarcely deviate from the snappy Buzzcocks meets Pete Towsend template, but each and every single one features brilliant guitar playing, a fantastically melodic chorus and a short and fizzy guitar solo. Everything here is brilliant.

The first track to deviate from the template is 'Just A State Of Mind', which sounds like one of Damon's bleak mid-90s ballads; "First time I saw you", Coxon sings, "teeth squeezed my lips". The song shimmers with pretty melodies and a beautifully executed vocal - not something anyone expected of Graham a few years back. At one point he sings "Just be happy, you are strong now / it's so lonely to love someone" before a gentle explosion of guitars gives way to a three second pyschedelic interlude. This in turn melts into a fuzzy guitar solo which recalls The Pixies at their most lovely. It's a staggering ten second sequence and completely unexpected.

'Gimme Some Love' is the best of the Pete Shelley homages, Graham refixing 'What Do I Get', his vocal clipped and bright, his guitar line conjured up with all the restraint, bite and finesse of his best work, on Blur's Parklife. 'I Don't Believe Anything I Say' could be straight off that record, with it's perky bassline and lovely farfisa melody. Again, the guitar is exquisite and the vocal performance incredibly accomplished. On 'Flights In The Sea' we see Graham's skill as an arranger, blending stately acoustic guitars with fizzing electrics, tinkling pianos and dramatic wind instruments. On 'What's He Got', meanwhile, he manages to come across as a meeting point between Magazine and Steely Dan. 'You Always Let Me Down' is back to The Who, but recalls the Stones, too - possibly the first time I've heard that influence on a Coxon record.

By now it should be clear that we're talking about here is a gloriously sustained sequence of mini-classics. It's hard and perhaps unnecessary to separate the body of work which has emerged from the original Blur line-up, but it's obvious fairly early on that this is up there with their very best work. Final track 'See A Better Day' illustrates, despite the stong influences apparent in his work, how recognisable Coxon's writing and playing have become - within ten seconds it could only be him. And where he used to illustrate his insecure love songs with mumbled, hesitant tones, now he has the confidence to explore the full colour of his palatte; the result is remarkably uplifing and charming.

Taking Damon's Think Tank and Demon Days on the one hand, and Coxon's spectacular pyrotechnics on Love Travels at Illegal Speeds on the other, it's pretty damn clear that they're in a league of their own when it comes to creativity and progression. One wonders if it might not be a cause of celebration, rather than regret, that Britain's best songwriters and musicians are working independently rather than together. Both, astonishingly, just keep getting better and better.

A real ten out of ten record, even if it is only February.

6 comments:

Kate said...

sounds brill!!!

Paul said...

I think you're spot on, actually. Arctic Monkeys Shmonkeys.

Anonymous said...

GGGRRRAAAAHHHHHAAAAMMMM

Anonymous said...

Amazing album, even better than Happiness In Mags and that is saying something. Fave track is 'I don't wanna go out', tis golden!

Anonymous said...

Great review by the way, totally agree with the mcfly thing :)

jonathan said...

Ta! :-)