MICHAEL HEAD BY EMMANUEL TELLIER (1)
M is for mischief. There’s (a bit) of that in the mere fact that I’m sitting down to write something about the new Michael Head album but a conventional review is the very last thing I feel like doing. Still, Pascal Blua asked me to do it and you don’t say “no” to Pascal Blua – you say “yes”, you just need to be a bit crafty about it.
I is for Iberian. Yes I know, Michael Head comes from Liverpool (sorry, my mistake – Michael Head is Liverpool). Even so, he’s always had a thing about Spain and Spanish – often it’s in the titles of songs, but this time it’s the album itself. When you’re plucking the (heart) strings, it doesn’t really matter what guitar you use as long as you can feel that exhilaration… That’s the first thing I love about this rather odd bloke (looking like a fifty-something street urchin, amused at still being alive on the radiant sleeve designed by the aforementioned Mr Blua), his bohemian and incredibly romantic side – just give him a cheap flamenco guitar picked up from a rainy Sheffield flea market for 40 quid, with a twisted neck and Sisters of Mercy stickers hiding the holes, and the former Pale Fountain will still manage to sing you something as gorgeous as the sun that’ll reduce you to tears. I don’t know where this Hispanic thing all the Mersey bohemians seem to have comes from – Lee Mavers has got the same thing, so has John Power, so have the gringos from The Coral, but wherever they get it from, it never fails – Michael Head the Iberian plays songs the way Maradona played with the ball – naturally, without even thinking about it. There’s a disconcerting ease, especially in the way he sings, as though it didn’t matter, with his head in clouds. I is for Icarus and it’s as easy as A-B-C.
C is for cutting it short, because if I write 20 lines for each letter of his name you’ll never get to the end of the page.
H is for heroic. Just what is a musical hero? Delete all that do not apply. Is it someone who sells loads of records? (I’d delete that one myself). Is it a tortured soul who writes a couple of hits and then does one? (I’d delete that as well). Is it a precocious type who doesn’t put a foot wrong up to the age of 26 but ends up deciding to die of an overdose at 27? (That’s another one I’d cross out). Or else… Or else (you’re way ahead of me) is it a long-distance runner, a stowaway in the official history of rock, rarely found sunbathing up on deck but not actually hidden away at the bottom of the ship’s hold – someone who’s somewhere between the two, in his own world, in a “class of his own”? Paddy McAloon. Edwyn Collins. Peter Milton Walsh. People like that. These are survivors, who haven’t forgotten that there’s a life (though it may sometimes be cruel and sometimes exhausting) outside music… So, at the end of the day yes, Michael Head is a hero. He’s someone who’s always done the best he could – but at his own pace, and with whatever he happened to have at the time, sometimes drawing on his modesty or his hangovers, but sometimes using his ability to pick himself up again, to make peace again both with music and with the idea of being heard, listened to and appreciated. An honest man – imperfect but with his integrity intact. He’s now allowed himself to put nearly all the best songs on his 2017 album right at the end – and, after all, why shouldn’t he – who’s the boss here?
A is for acoustic. This is still the basis of everything, just as it always has been. A man, his acoustic guitar, the sofa, the television in the background, a passing cat, Across The Kitchen Table. One day a song might come along, the next day it might not. Still, never mind, things’ll be better tomorrow… You need to know how to come back to it. You need to dream about it at night. Forget. Remember. Forget again. Start picking out the good ones. Five songs, then six… Then one day maybe you’ve got enough for a record. You don’t think they used to ask Maradona to go and train, do you? Of course not. He went off and played football. So nobody’s going to ask Michael Head to record an album, are they? Of course not. He’ll sit and play the guitar while he’s watching the telly. Until, one fine day…
E is for eternal, as in timeless. I’m not sure he knows it himself, but the British press are feeling generous nowadays, and they seem finally (and not a fucking minute too soon, lads!!!) to have decided to inform Mr Head that, since the early 1980s, he’s been assembling a back catalogue with an unmistakeable whiff of the timeless about it. Since the Paleys, since Shack, Head has been right up there with the very best. It’s in the incredibly delicate way he weaves his melodies, his disarmingly unaffected voice (a gift from the gods), his combination of Spanish sun and English drizzle, the very Latin suppleness of the rhythms that come along the minute he picks up his guitar. Head is up there with the timeless artists. The Jimmy Webb of Wichita Lineman (immortalised by Glen Campbell). The Scott Walker of The Seventh Seal. The George Harrison of Something. The Mac Davis of In The Ghetto (performed sublimely by Presley). Do you think I’m exaggerating? Am I just a fan getting guiltily carried away? I don’t think so… Do I need to repeat here that – in 2017 probably more than ever – it’s crucial to make a distinction between the songs (the way they’re structured, the way they work, their intrinsic charm) and how performers may approach them later on, which can vary in terms of how articulate, flattering, ostentatious or, on the contrary, modest they are? Never confuse the wood from which a table is made with the varnish on top of it. Here’s a random example: is Arcade Fire’s Reflektor a great song? I don’t think so. At best it’s a gimmick, a fragment of an idea. Is it a good track once it’s been laid down, produced, beefed up with Pro Tools steroids and electro handclaps? Sure. OK, then what about an example of the same thing the other way around? Take Primal Scream’s Velocity Girl, that’s an unpolished gem, but messed up by an 85-second schoolboy non-mix on a Byrdsian IV drip. It’s (rather) a shame when you listen to it… but it’s still a fantastic song… OK, OK, so you think I’m rambling, do you? What’s all this got to do with Michael Head? Well, this bloke has managed to combine the two (the power of the song and the right performance) throughout most of his career – and especially when he was working with his brother John, it’s a shame we no longer hear his chiming electric 12-string counterpoints. The Pale Fountains had that rare quality – they wrote songs Pale Fountains better than anyone else in the world, and they also recorded them with an eloquence, an outlook and a natural authority that nobody else could’ve got near. Like The Smiths. Like The Woodentops. Like Echo and the Bunnymen. Even so, it seems to me that Michael Head has more or less managed to retain the unusual twofold skill of being both the parent and the midwife. The wood from which the table is made and the varnish.
Here, you can hear this miracle of balance particularly on tracks like Picasso and 4&4 Still Makes 8 – what they have in common is that they move straight ahead, driven by an incredibly simple great big bass drum, the kind of thing you need to get reluctant children marching into the wind on a church outing. It’s very basic, but it works wonderfully because it means Michael Head can let his voice flow naturally, picking us up in the palm of his hand with those vocal modulations and subtle melodic developments that only he knows how to pull off. On the first few listens, it doesn’t seem to work quite as well on tracks built upon compound rhythms such as Overjoyed and Queen Of All Saints. A waltz can be a trap – it can hem the voice into small spaces, where there’s not enough room or oxygen. When you hear the first couplet of Josephine, you’re afraid of what’s coming next – what can Michael Head possibly do with this hackneyed tuppenny ha’penny swaying rhythm and a vocal melody that’s as flat as an airport runway? Then comes the chorus, and it’s baroque around the clock, push back the tables and bring in the fife players, proving that a waltz can be amazing too; and that Michael Head is as good at writing as he is at directing. “Boss”, as they say in Liverpool.
L is for lightness of touch. In the sense of restraint and delicacy. A shiver in the voice. Winter Turns To Spring is all of this, and it’s some welcome light blue breaking through a sky which is rather too overcast for my taste. It’s just Head and a piano. Head sings (a bit) like Edwyn Collins, his voice welling up, bordering on the kind of melancholic, late-night soul that’s played on jukeboxes in Memphis when the last customers have headed off to bed, and the innocent listener is caught in the trap, forced to look discreetly away while the other person in the room says “are you OK? You look a bit upset…” (who’d’ve thought it?).
A ghost for today and tomorrow – hearing Michael Head (and Peter Walsh, and Neil Hannon, and a few others) indulging themselves with a wonderful dive into asceticism and instrumental nudity, of the kind Paddy McAloon allowed himself when he reinterpreted most of Steve McQueen on acoustic guitar a few years back (an uncanny masterpiece). Let’s call it the “Johnny-Cash-American-Recordings treatment”. Once you get past 50 it ought to be compulsory and you ought to be able to claim the cost back from the Social Security. “Hey, Michael, here’s your ‘plane ticket – you’re off to spend a fortnight at Rick Rubin’s place, don’t worry, he’ll tell you what it’s all about when you get there…”
H is for HMS Fable. Or Here’s Tom With The Weather… It’s up to young Web users like you who’ve come across this page more or less by chance (or by mistake) but take it from old blokes like Pascal Blua and myself, you really should check out Michael Head’s back catalogue. No really, go on…
E is for evidently or, to put it another way, obviously. Workin’ Family obviously. Rumer, obviously. Wild Mountain Thyme, obviously. The Byrds obviously, Love obviously, Zilch-period Shack obviously (such an underestimated record). These tracks are the flesh, the soul, the blood and the tears of Adios Senor Pussycat. Michael Head looking at himself in a mirror, his eyes open wide. “Yes, all that happened to me… Yes, I’m still here…” Michael Head? He really ISN’T an absolute beginner, even though he’s managed to hang onto all the innocent charm of his brilliant salad days – that, surely, is something to be celebrated, isn’t it? Then, on the sublime Rumer, he’s got some lady friends in to do some gorgeous (and very catchy) Leonard-Cohen-goes-surfing-in-Malibu-style backing vocals and, as they were there, they hung around to sing on the very Californian and no less delightful Wild Mountain Thyme, which is a wonderful way to finish an album.
A is for Adios Amigo. Eh? That’s it? Already? Well, roll on the next album. (N.B. I reckon Michael’s going to be releasing one record after another over the next few years, and they’ll get better and better, which’ll be only right and proper). In the meantime, let’s get this straight, this one is fabulous. I hate scores but, if you insist, 9.37 out of 10.
D is for do it – get yourself straight down to your local record shop tomorrow, OK?
October 20th 2017