“This is from our new album. It’s sold 5,000 copies – which is just how it should be.” Stephen Jones ushers his henchmen – sturdy as oak trees, beautiful as barn doors – into ‘Back Together’. It’s poacher pop; Jones stealthily prowls through the thick, fetid undergrowth of the music, his voice swoops into a tormented falsetto – a wounded duck-call for the lasting torments of a love gone sour.
They’ve had their dalliance with mainstream success, found it more ridiculous than gorgeous, and now BabyBird are back working the shaded areas of torment, sifting through the awkward emotional residue left unresolved in the commonplace rush to mass success. More power to their steely Sheffield blades and expertly wielded scalpels – now more than ever both the national mood and indie music mindset needs self-possessed iconoclasts and wily malcontents.
A self-mocking dramatist, Jones fills those and several other roles. Tonight, the opening show of a short national tour, nonetheless has a focussed seriousness at odds with the drunken audience assaults of old (the stage is a shrine to bottled mineral water). The depth and care of the craft expended on the performance is obvious even in the later stages when the Jones vocal chords struggle to match his demanding range.
There’s real beauty here among the squalid embraces, the puffed-up dreams of control, the sad legacy of abuse. BabyBird play a cabaret music from halfway across Hades but it’s shot through with shimmering lifelines – guitar lines like budding roses, starbright twinkling piano fills, bass parts that caress and appraise gently before moving in for the kill.
They use their weaponry in arch playful and devastating style, rivalling The Bad Seeds for sonic accuracy and effectiveness. ‘The Life’, where the words scrape away at the character’s skin, is funny, lacerating and unforgiving – working into a sullen frenzy of repetitive anger until all that’s left is the cold magisterial dominance of Jones and co.
As the lucky 5,000 know, this is a quality that oozes from new album ‘There’s Something Going On’, particularly on song of the year, ‘Bad Old Man’. Here, a fully ripened melody coalesces with Stephen’s unseemly relish for the harsh power and jarring cadence of the words.
As they move into the final strait the entire band are seated. But this is no stool-rock convention. More like the Last Supper or an autopsy on the male psyche, gathering round to prise the lid off the culture coffin and the nightmare that lies waiting in ’45 And Fat’. However, by the time ‘All Men Are Evil’ is reached it’s hard to keep a feeling of exhaustion at bay, the unremittingly black psychology and war of attrition on the male gender has left a pocked, pitted and desolate battlefield.
Which might help make closer ‘Take Me Back’ even more chilling. There are encores to come, including [I]that[/I] song, but this is the abiding image – a fairy tale where rose thorns draw blood, and nettles and wasp nests lie at the centre. He may like a joke and a sweet song but, make no mistake, this bird can sting.