MR VERLAINE UNWRAPS
Source: NME (September 1st 1979)
by Max Bell
Tom Verlaine (Elektra)
Maybe it's only a fleeting impression, but an initial acquaintance with Tom Verlaine's quietly unannounced solo album suggests that he's getting lonely in that garret.
Verlaine still seems a lean and hungry man. and he's remained in the centre ring, on his own case, talking in brinkmanship terms but keeping his muse sharp and active. A likeable man he may not be, but an artist with a peculiarity appealing ascetic bent he remains.
Besides which, Verlaine's basic aesthetic hasn't altered appreciably this past twelvemonth. Fred Smith is still there on bass and the replacement of drummer Billy Ficca with Jay Dee Daugherty retains all the flexibility the songs demand, the freedom and friction between alternate states of sloppiness and razor sharp tension. Verlaine calls all the shots on guitars, keyboards, vocals and production (assisted by John Jansen, Bob Clearmountain and the ineffable Sterling Sound), while his own progress as a rhythm guitarist more than compensates for the loss of traded angles with Lloyd.
It's more and more apparent that Verlaine takes his art form seriously, but he obviously had some fun too 'cos for once the idiosyncrasies of his jagged compositions are balanced by clean cutting dynamics and that genius for breaking new ground using old formulas. Starting with The Grip Of Love', an evocative spiral staircase of sardonic imagery and skeletal, deadpan hard rock, Verlaine reveals a taste for the direct rhythm. Nothing but nothing gets in the way of the punch.
The Hendrix archivist and session musician Allan Schwartzberg assumes the drumming mantle for the side's most slippery moments. 'Souvenir From A Dream' is almost a re-run of the Television story, a warped, crumbling picture built on hatred of the chemical obstacles that obscured their progress, yet it revolves around full-blooded melodic block chording which is entirely lush and comfortable. Verlaine's own keyboard playing, bubbling tinny organ and dense piano, draws out this soft parade of bitterness and exorcises the nightmare.
'Kingdom Come' has more in common lyrically with the courtly metaphors and medieval otherworldliness of side two but that past is still biting deep when Verlaine sings the chorus "I'll be breaking these rocks until the kingdom comes/And cutting this hay - it's my price to pay" it becomes hard to believe that he was the insensitive, hair-shirted animal he was painted out to be.
By contrast 'Mr Bingo' and the inscrutable, slight but engaging 'Yonki Time' are jokey, albeit sarcastic. The former is probably a diatribe directed against Verlaine's former employer Terry Ork. It utilises a slow, underhand rhythm and a zippy electric blues top layer that sparkles with unusually pitched harmonica and sublime psychedelic excursions. Neat.
This equation of substance and content is all the more interesting on side two where Verlaine seems to have got the grisly details out of his system and is ready to take on a whole other frame of reference. Lyrically the thread of lovers' courtesies and strangely archaic environments is spun throughout four songs building up to the lump in the throat helplessness of 'Breakin' In My Heart' that closes the album on a peak of perfection. The style is akin to Television's most enigmatic excursions like The Dream's Dream' or Torn Curtain'. Verlaine's sparse cast list is regal, characters move like chess pieces in a cloud castle, all very spiritual in fact. Perhaps Verlaine has discovered religion too? He's certainly more elegiac than ever before.
The expansion of Tom's structural vocabulary to include a metaphoric prison of the souls is not as pompous as its description makes it sound. The gist of 'Flash Lightning' and 'Red Leaves' is simple enough, great driving. tuneful, inspired rock and roll with a myriad fine edges to involve the listener beyond surface meaning. 'Red Leaves' is Verlaine doing what he does best, ripping the possibilities of the genre apart and reconstructing them anew. 'Last Night' is such an instance, the album's one straightforward compliment and heartfelt beauty. Cloying and delicious.
So far so good, n'est-ce pas, Tom? The pearls fall out in profusion all through but the last jewel is the proof. 'Breakin' In My Heart' is six minutes of Verlaine over-reaching his former self-restraint and letting the powercharge of suppressed emotions flood out like one huge, swelling wave. The excellent Ricky Wilson (B-52s) drives down the rhythm guitar beat while Fred and Dee close up the cracks letting Verlaine go free. It's sublime, a continuous loop of soaring acid crystal fretwork, so jaunty and tense that it rolls off the neck like an alchemical explosion.
And the cover? It says a lot, with Verlaine's lanky, gawking frame looking the buyer in the eye and looking very happy with itself too. As well it might. He still sings like a kind of cartoon beaver but I've even got to like him for that. The ice has cracked after all.