Enough energy and sour synth-pop to spook The Horrors
Guitarists over 40 don’t have a great record for recapturing their teenage angst and fury with dignity. Once they hit middle-age, most of them sensibly embrace new avenues – see Jonny Greenwood’s reinvention as a Hollywood soundtracker who’d rather solo on duck call than play an actual guitar – or mellow, like Noel on the elegiac dad-rock of ‘… High Flying Birds’.
On the evidence of 2009’s psych-folk ‘The Spinning Top’, Graham Coxon seemed to be going the same way as the elder Gallagher. In fact, the best guitarist of the ’90s (sorry, Jonny) has been cutting back drastically on his frantic guitar-mangling – 2006’s ‘Love Travels At Illegal Speeds’ saw him swap his monstrous roar for peppy power-pop, and the few squalls on ‘The Spinning Top’ were courtesy of psych icon Robyn Hitchcock.
No-one wants to see a 43-year-old thrashing guitars like a disgruntled teen and spitting vitriolic verses about violence in clubs, so this retreat to maturity may be for the best, right? Wrong. Coxon is not your usual 40-something – he’s stuck in a state of perpetual arrested development, looking younger by the year (check out that snappy ‘Leisure’-era haircut!), happy in a teenage wasteland with his Jam and Syd Barrett records. So perhaps realising he’s going to be young at heart for ever, the sulky, surly, passive-aggressive Graham we know and love has returned with a vengeance, and rediscovered his finest bomb-blast guitar work.
As a result, ‘A+E’ is Coxon’s most thrilling and noisy album since 2000’s ‘The Golden D’. It’s also his first to prominently feature synths – most notably on the sour post-punk pulse of ‘City Hall’. Throughout the album, though, the electronics are used as bedrocks, unchanging landscapes on which Coxon’s guitar can squeal into earshot and wreak havoc like a visiting tornado. Great shards of feedback pepper the synth-disco ‘What’ll It Take?’, ‘Seven Naked Valleys’ features a guitar that sounds like crystal glasses in a blender, and the solo stutters in ‘Knife In The Cast’ are like our Graham’s mum forgot to put money in the meter mid-recording.
What sets A+E’ apart from the troubled sonic terrorism of ‘The Golden D’ is the captivating pop heart at its centre. At times, it’s almost like the album Blur should have made in place of ‘Think Tank’. Take the noise of ‘Bugman’, the loopy electronics of ‘Movin’ On’, the chugging introspection of ‘1992’, the experimental drones of ‘Essex Dogs’ and a bit of ‘Freakin’ Out’ pop, and you pretty much have ‘A+E’. Things don’t get much catchier than the jagged ‘Running For Your Life’, which sees Coxon amusingly depict the violence of a suburban night out: “[i]We don’t like your accent or your Northampton shoes/Get back down the M1 ’cos we don’t like you[/i]”.
The return of a more confrontational Graham, along with his newfound enthusiasm for synths, could suggest that he’s pitching up alongside younger Korg-toters like The Horrors and SCUM – but the guitars, lyrics and electronics here are a lot more misanthropic and raging than the blissed-out reverEs of ‘Skying’. The dank sonic textures are claustrophobic rather than expansive, none more so than on Coxon’s own favourite track, ‘Knife In The Cast’, which recalls This Heat’s dirgy experiments.
By the time the grunge-pop of ‘Ooh, Yeh Yeh’ stumbles to a halt, ‘A+E’ proves to have been a revelation. While looking back to his past and to the future, indulging his wayward id, and daubing it all in some of his most transgressive guitar work, Coxon has made one of the best albums of his career – a pop record with dangerously anti-social tendencies. May this lost boy never grow up.