HMS Fable

In the latest tedious tabloid rush to demonise celebrity drug-taking, a couple of points have been wilfully ignored....

In the latest tedious tabloid rush to demonise celebrity drug-taking, a couple of points have been wilfully ignored. Emphasising the horrors of long-term addiction, it has been overlooked that taking drugs makes you feel great. If it didn't, no-one would do it. It has also been ignored that drug-taking has inspired some of the greatest works of art this century. Specifically in reference to rock music and heroin, The Velvet Underground's 'I'm Waiting For The Man' and almost everything the Stones did that was any good. Now we can add a new one to that marvellous roster of damaged goods. It's called 'Streets Of Kenny' and it's on this album.

'...Kenny' is a song of rousing beauty, nervously pitched on the cusp between desperation and expectation. It yearns for the rush, fearful of the risk, but is even more scared of how it will feel if it can't be found. It is tinged with the thrill and bravado of the illegal. "Searching for the boys again", sings Michael Head in the manner of an electrified outlaw folkie. "Can't find Joe or Benny... I don't wanna bag, I wanna big one". He sings it with a passion that captures perfectly the knowledge that the very thing that has turned him into a prematurely wizened and toothless tramp also makes him feel like an angel.

Of course, the joke is that Shack should have been called Smack. Or Crack. Such is the mythology that has been rapidly built around Michael Head's years in the junkie wilderness. That Shack have survived to make this, their fourth LP, has been enthusiastically woven into rocklore but the true miracle here is not mere survival, but the sheer magnificence of 'HMS Fable'. On the face of it, it's dadrock but somewhere in the chemistry between Head's effortless pastiche of his heroes - The Beatles (in the trad structures), Nick Drake (in the strings) and especially Love (in the chilling fragility) - and the deathly bright perspective that smack bestows, Head has reinvented the genre.

Not since Liam Gallagher howled his early indolent disdain has this music sounded so alive. 'Pull Together' is an anthem easily the equal of Oasis at their most loved-up and huge, 'Comedy' tender and uplifting, like the missing track from 'Bridge Over Troubled Waters', 'Daniella' a haunted and exhausted homage to Head's hero Arthur Lee, and 'Lend Some Dough' a rollicking Scouse Play For Today with a chorus that goes, "I've got a sore back and I'm itching". It's about... well, trying to score, of course.

There's no escaping the shadow smack casts over this album any more than there was over its shimmering predecessor, 'Introducing The Strands'. But whereas '...The Strands' was becalmed in a luminous fog (recalled here in the mystical sea shanty 'The Captain's Table'), 'HMS Fable' has a heartening vibrancy and willingness to engage the real world once again. These are songs from the other side, delivered up with a joy for being alive that can surely only come from having been on nodding terms with death.

It's so splendid it will make you cry.
9 / 10

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