Sleek, deep and full of ideas...
As disappointments go UNKLE’s debut album, 1998’s ‘Psyence Fiction’, was up there with discovering that Santa likes a bit of kiddie fiddling. Four years in the making, James Lavelle and DJ Shadow’s all-star opus was talked up and mythologised like few records before or since. But it was a mess.
A self-conscious attempt to make a Very Important Record: UNKLE had the dream team (Richard Ashcroft, Thom Yorke, Ian Brown) and the big ideas, but little gelled. It lacked songs, it was gloomy, it had no cohesive character. It was a benchmark certainly, but a benchmark of hype and ego.
‘Never, Never, Land’, however, is very different. For a start, DJ Shadow is no longer involved, which greatly simplifies the creative process. These days, UNKLE tunes are reared organically, in East London, by Lavelle, his (flat)mate Richard File and Pulp / Elastica’s Ant Genn. whose falsetto voice is ‘Never’s recurring motif,
Similarly, the guest-list; Ian Brown, Josh ‘ubiquitous’ Homme, Jarvis Cocker, 3D, seems more natural somehow. Less of an attempt to define the zeitgeist by hooking up with the most celebrated stars of the moment, more a simple attempt to get the tunes right. A la Badly Drawn Boy, and ‘Nursery Rhyme’ from Psyence Fiction.
Not that ‘Never…’ is any less grand and ambitious than it’s predecessor, musically. Third track, ‘In A State’, sets the tone. A string-swaddled electronic folk tune, it sounds like a very expensive car advert. But soulful too. It is sad and beautiful; intricate, immaculate, widescreen. By ‘Reign’ where Ian Brown and Mani are reunited amid towering strings we’re in a state of high cinematic tension.
Throughout, electronic and acoustic elements are reconciled atop supple beats notably lighter than Shadow’s doomy hip-hop rhythms. In particular, the elegantly chilled-out ‘What Are You To Me?’, the psychedelic machine-funk of ‘Panic Attack’ and Josh’s strange cyber-thrash ‘Safe In Mind’ are excellent.
At 60 minutes plus, it’s too long, and neither Cocker and Eno’s ambient doodle nor 3D’s ‘Invasion’ work. But, nonetheless, ‘Never…’ is sleek, deep and full of ideas.
For Lavelle it must be sweet vindication. When ‘Psyence Fiction’ was released, he was widely derided as a mouthy fixer hitching a ride on DJ Shadow’s production talent. Well, his creative input into ‘Never…’ is undisputed, and it’s a far better record. Point proved.