Sublime - Charlie Marshall and The Curious Minds (Charlie Marshall) & Silver/Lead - Wire (Pinkflag)
Wire do enjoy their titles. “Akin to A Bell is a Cup (Until it is Struck)”, “Silver/ Lead” hints at alchemical alteration of roles and realities. What if what we assumed was one thing, wasn’t really that at all…
Being from Melbourne, Charlie Marshall is more direct. He says exactly what he means. “Sublime” is his view of the machinery of the universe and our world - that stuff up out there, and that stuff all around us down here. What if what we assumed was one thing, wasn’t really that at all...
Both “Sublime” and “Silver/ Lead” are magical. Both reach out and touch your heartstrings, both have a confident sensuality about them. Both wield lyrics like conversation: we discuss all manner of things, how we’ve changed our world, what it is, and our place in it. All this without being either preachy or boring; falling into both “Sublime” and “Silver/ Lead” is in like one of those enlightening conversations in a pub without an argument. Although both Sare in many ways rather different, they beat as two hearts. Both belong in your collection.
Charlie Marshall first, then. He was in Harem Scarem. He’s not huge on flowery lyrics, and if you were to read them all on their own they’d make sense but you might wonder how he’d put them to music. But not only do they make an excellent fit, the songs - and let’s be clear, here, “Sublime” is a concept LP which works, and works most excellently.
Just realised that Wire are kinda similar. I mean, how is Wire’s “The passenger matches the price that he's asking/ Embracing the modern he now understands” a lyric? or Marshall’s “Take a look around, this world of ours is not a cruel machine”…? How can they make this work?
It’s all in this delivery thing. Marshall’s voice is utterly gorgeous, it really is. Wire have a rather spare beauty in the vocals, but either way… it’s the vocals which carry you away; “… and you might find you can use your mind/ standing on the shoulders of giants,” as Marshall sings.
“Sublime” has something of a stellar line-up (no, not this time. I’m not telling you. Discover it.) and I’m darned if I can’t tell whether it’s down to Charlie’s grand design or the huge talents he’s corralled around him, but each of the two parts of Sublime are a bit like diving into a glorious pond.
The first part, “Physics” is about how the planet got here, and how it works within the cosmos. The second part, “Ecology” is about how the thing works and what we’re tinkering with. The ending of this part, a song called ‘So Many Ways’ is about how we can stop pooing on our doorstep and live (gulp) in harmony. And the man is something of an optimist. Marshall really believes we can help ourselves.
Curiously, so do Wire. Clock this:
Acts of forgiveness give virtue in spades
As thoughts of transgression gradually fade
Turn over and over and over a new leaf
Don’t come back in anger – start with belief)
Speaking of harmonies, both Wire and Marshall use them. In fact, if you’re one of those who secretly get a bit of a stiffy when you hear a McCartney vocal/ harmony, you’re going to get quite excited by “Sublime” because among other influences (like I say, go dig) the LP sounds more than a little bit like Macca’s band Wings. But, I hasten to say, the good bits of Wings.
And I can’t think of anyone who’s actually tried to tackle the most basic of concepts in music before: how did the planet get here and how are we doing. This must seem all very portentous, I know. But it’s not. Like the best classical music, or the best jazz, you find yourself going with the flow, engaged…
Now, I don’t want to quote Charlie endlessly, and as the man himself seems to be that rare beast, a teacher who loves the subject, but can teach it without the kids rigging up a guillotine, I asked him a few questions.
i94bar: What prompted you to start writing these songs - was it all at once, or did they develop over years..?
Charlie: I've been reading, thinking and teaching about science and the universe since I was a kid but it took ages for this huge force of wonder about the world to push it's way into my music. It just built up until the momentum was too much to keep it back and then the songs for this album came together pretty quickly. For ages I thought rock and roll was best for expressing more primal emotions, love, angst about personal relationships, that kind of stuff. I made a few false starts on the songs on Sublime over the years - I found an old folder of half-finished songs a couple of years ago that contained a few of the songs that ended up on the new album, that I had started but hadn't been able to develop and finish. With the wisdom (!) I had developed in the intervening years I was able to revisit them and finish them pretty quickly and then wrote a whole lot more straight away.
I94bar: Here’s a thought. A lot of physicists and science types believe in God. Because what they see ... What do you think..? If there is an Almighty... does it take the form we've thought it did?
Charlie: As far as the "Almighty" goes. I think physicists who do have some kind of spiritual belief tend to have a very big, broad, diffuse idea about a "God" type figure or force. Rather than the personal, old guy with a beard type character! They have discovered that the world is configured by these laws of nature that are elegant and beautiful and symmetrical and they wonder why that is. Some think that some kind of creative, spiritual force that is really good at mathematics may be responsible! The first book that got me interested in physics was The Dancing Wu Li Masters that drew parallels between the world views of quantum physicists and Buddhist teachings. An interesting read! Myself I am as atheist as atheist can be.
I94bar: Your day job is a teacher, I understand. How do the kids react knowing their teacher is a musician playing in the sticky concrete pissoirs around Melbourne..?
Charlie: With my teaching style I put on a bit of a show as part of engaging the kids. It's a bit of a performance, so it's not that different to doing a gig. I try to make things dramatic, fun and thought provoking as possible. Teachers can be cool and still get kids respect. You've got to have strict boundaries as well but as far as discipline goes my approach is to try and make things so engaging and interesting that the kids don't think of playing up. Which is all by way of saying the kids don't think it's all that strange if they find out I'm also a rock musician. It kind of makes sense.
I mainly deal with younger kids, so as far as older kids not going to gigs, I'm no authority there. Too much competition from other kinds of entertainment I guess. But they still go to festivals and stuff a lot don't they? Smaller, inner city gigs have always have always been a pretty esoteric, niche market affair. I'm not sure things have changed much there.
I94bar: Am I misreading the songs, or is there a philosophical sense of order to your universe-view ... ?
Charlie: There’s definitely a sense of philosophical order to the world view I get by looking at things through the lens of science. The beauty which is revealed in the way the universe and our planet work. The way it encourages you to really attend to your senses. To observation, to looking really closely at things… And… then to continuously put all these observations and bits of information together into a bigger picture that makes sense and to see how all these seemingly disparate phenomena actually relate to each other and connect. I find this a wonderful way of looking at the world. And, I find it really grounding and calming and good for the soul. And it gives me a great perspective on our place in the grander scheme of things. I don't meditate but I love to ponder. To ponder about the myriad beautiful and mysterious things in our world. I would love people to pick up on this message from listening to Sublime. But I also hope they just dig the music cos I really think the songs are good.
I94bar: Rereading Bryson's "A Walk in the Woods" and he's talking about the neglect of the US Forestries. This seems to be the case around the world, we seem unaware of quite how much we've destroyed, or that it's important to the survival of humanity. We're only a tiny blip in time, Charlie; would Darwin chuckle, d’you think? Can we ever get out to the stars and begin again, more intelligently, do you think? or is that equation (Speed of Light = Quarantine) effectively accurate..?
Charlie: Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything" is a great, great, great book and should be in the curriculum for science teaching! The lack of understanding in our 'leaders' about what the natural world is really like and what is really important is astounding. The arrogance and hubris in the view that economics completely 'trumps' nature (pun intended!) has been escalating for decades and is totally delusional madness. It's getting scary. And it's getting harder to talk to kids about the future. A complete dismantling of the planet devouring economic machine seems to be the only answer. And it's not a pretty one!
And no, we can't get out to the stars and start again. They're too far away, even at the speed of light they're a long way off, and travel at any sort of substantial fraction of the speed of light is not going to happen any century soon. And of course, any starting again would be by the rich and powerful who are the very one's most likely to fuck things up again. We are stuck here on this tiny, little pale blue dot and we need to realise that!
* * *
To Wire, then. “Silver/ Lead” seems to be Wire at their most blunt, yet most seductive; just take the lyrics to the opener, ‘Playing Harp for the Fishes’;
A mute undertaker had something to tell
I stand at the threshold, I’m ringing the bell
I was hoping for heaven, I’d settle for hell
Playing harp for the fishes, it’s hard to pretend
Hell of a grim beginning; as usual, the shock of hearing horror wrapped in power and beauty never wears off (‘Brio’ is quite unpleasant, but gorgeous). Living in the UK can’t be easy, not with Brexit, and the EU teetering on the brink of collapse, with Russia hoping to scoop up more space in Europe and imbecilic signs and roundabouts everywhere, where everything is forbidden except to the exalted, and “Dolphin Square” is a metanym for evil perversion.
“Short Elevated Period” abruptly clangs into gear, guitars chugging and chiming in that trademark gigantism Wire are so fond of.
It's a pivotal moment, in an uncertain future
A pain relief deal done on the Frankfurt express
Right up to the moment I I.D. you
My reasons for living were under review
“Sonic Lens’”puts the isolated individual into the larger, wider picture. “Brio” is like an epigram to “Sonic Lens”; it’s almost a requiem. “Sleep on the Wing” is hugely evocative, and we return to the problem of the individual again. Curiously, ‘Sleep on the Wing’ is the most commercial song on the LP (for me it recalls top 40 AOR (no, really) with aspects of 10CC or The Buggles (ffs)). And it’s also a lovely song … about personal entrapment. I suppose.
“Silver/ Lead” is a fine Wire record, quite different to their last few. The vocal in “Forever & A Day” recalls Iggy on “The Idiot”; in one sense of course it’s a love song (Wire are not known for their love songs), in another it’s a firm observation of Europe’s tangled web of alliances and expectations (“Virtue’s been coupled, only shadows remain”). Recall how “The Idiot” seemed quite perfectly proportioned..? “Silver/ Lead” is similar. Certainly, it’s not as experimental - they have no need to experiment now.
Wire have always demonstrated a unity of purpose difficult at times to unravel. The meaning is in your interpretation. And sometimes, the band can be mischievously misleading - in Mat Smith’s article on Wire for clashmusic.com two years ago, Colin Newman stated that their new song “The Octopus” was:
“...about the Paul The Octopus-isation of modern life. You remember the story about the South African World Cup? It was quite a story - South Africa has been through this whole incredible journey in history and they were finally staging World Cup, they were proud, they did it really well and then suddenly the only thing people were talking about was some octopus that predicted the scores. People see anything that's popular and they kind of muscle in on it.”
Well, that seems straightforward, doesn’t it? Nope. Not when you look at ‘Octopus’’ chorus:
There's always someone who thinks they've got a plan
Someone with a whip in hand, who thinks they are a man
A rescue package that will barely save the day
Even when implemented with no further delay
Sure. You can relate that to the South Africa World Cup and so on. Sure you can. But what a chorus. It’s far broader, yet far more pointed. Name a country it isn’t about.
“Silver/ Lead”, the title track, is the end-piece. Rather smart but so dreadfully simple; you wonder that more people aren’t connecting to the concept. Silver - Lead refers to alchemy, the science where medieval folk tried to turn base metals to precious metals such as gold. Lead was a favourite - both metals were heavy. Wire flip this, naturally, and imply that we’re taking the precious metal Silver and turning it into Lead.
Just one line should suffice: “Abandoned! Can’t afford to keep” could refer to a should-be-heritage-listed pub, a car, a life, a ship… a society. The chorus I won’t quote, but it maintains that thread of medieval beliefs in the face of evidence.
“An Alibi” is probably the most perfect depiction of the alienation of modern life I’ve ever seen - we can no longer live by moral standards, we have to construct alibis and excuses before we do the damage. With such a dreadful emotional drain, the impact of our actions and decisions on others pale to third or fourth priority. Such an elegant demonstration of the sheer loss of self and purpose in modern society.
Like Marshall, Wire have released a beautiful, moving, revealing LP. Marshall’s more straightforward lyrics with his wonderful, soaring voice remind me that the first cathedral was the sky above us on the savannah when we looked up and wondered; Wire’s glorious hues and powerful seductive technique are like swimming against a whirlpool. You can’t resist either, and you don’t want to neither.
“Silver/ Lead” is a damn good record. So is “Sublime”. Go check ‘em out…
1/2 - both