Monday, January 07, 2008

The Method in the Madness

The Art of Dory Previn (Zonophone Compilation, 2007)

I’ll start with a small confession: I knew next to nothing about Dory Previn before I heard the marvellous Camera Obscura song that takes her name. She’s perhaps more famous for being Andre Previn’s psychologically troubled ex-wife than she is for her bizarre and fascinating songs. This excellent compilation gathers together material from her years with United Artists records in the early 70s, a period in which she underwent psychiatric treatment and was encouraged to write about her experiences in poems and songs.

These songs cover themes and subjects that most writers of the period would have considered taboo and her lyrics still sound fearless and audacious even today. Her voice has a deceptive lightness of touch (with an understatement and crisp phrasing totally absent among the current breed of reality-show tutored singers) which belies her subject matter. At times she is raucously comic, at others she is consumed by a dark sexuality and psychological trauma.

I don’t have enough contextual knowledge to assess how shrewd a selection this compilation contains – but it certainly includes some of her most nakedly personal works. Coming from a strict Catholic background and having a complicated relationship with her father, who suffered severe bouts of depression following a gas attack during the war, there’s an intricate undertow of guilt and rebellion in many of these songs. ‘Esther’s First Communion’ opens the set on an appropriate note then, making the profane sacred and the sacred profane, with a young girl instructed by her parents to ‘marry Jesus’, then fantasising about him sexually (to her parents’ unrestrained horror), before embarking on a sexual odyssey with numerous men when this proves unfulfilling. To many people, this would probably still prove breathtakingly offensive, as would the album’s closing track (‘Jesus Was A Androgyne’), which brings us neatly full circle after a world of confusion and pain in between.

There’s ‘Twenty Mile Zone’, which would resemble a children’s folk tune were it not for its self-mocking tone in dealing with insanity. Previn’s protagonist is approached by a policeman on a motorcycle having been witnessed screaming from the window of her car for no other reason than to let off steam. Eventually, they end up delightfully screaming in unison as he escorts her to a police station in convoy. ‘Mythical Kings and Iguanas’ is every bit as fantastical as its title suggests, but it’s a mesmerising and compelling fantasy.

Things get nastier with the deliciously vengeful ‘Beware of Young Girls’, presumably addressed to Mia Farrow, to whom Previn famously lost her husband. The lyrics are splendidly poetic, complete with alliteration and internal rhyming (‘I thought her motives were sincere/Oh yes I did/But this lass, it came to pass/Had a dark and different plan….She admired my own sweet man.’). The spindly melody helps to emphasise the song’s sinister tone. Even more disconcerting is the terrifying ‘Doppelganger’, a vivid portrait of an evil character lurking throughout history and across geographical locations. The final lines are devastating, hinting again at Previn’s own mental torment – having seen her character’s obscenities scrawled on her wall, Previn then notices ‘his handwriting was identical with mine’, the snarl in her voice on the final note emphasising the horrifying nature of this revelation.

Already we seem to be in entirely unique and unusual territory, and that’s before we’ve even mentioned the ‘dark attraction’ of ‘With My Daddy In The Attic’, or the spine-tingling ‘Angels and Devils The Following Day’. The latter is an absolute masterpiece with an uncomfortable and thought-provoking lyric. To a swirling and sensuous backing, Previn contrasts two lovers, one violent and brutal, the other sensitive and kind. Yet she concludes that the gentle man hurt her more because of the psychological impact of his constant guilt and uncertainty. It’s not an easy listen by any means. Similarly masterful is ‘Left Hand Lost’, which links depression to being retrained to write right-handed rather than with the devil’s left side.

The musical accompaniments are rich and varied, from the bare piano and acoustic guitar of ‘Perfect Man’, to the more elaborate strings of ‘Doppelganger’ Whatever the instrumentation or size of the ensemble, the music always seems to be meticulously arranged. Previn manages to juxtapose hints of show tunes, early jazz (with the occasional interjection of a Benny Goodman-inspired clarinet) and traditional folk music. It’s extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to categorise or pigeonhole her distinctive approach to songwriting. This compilation coheres chiefly through the stark and communicative qualities of her singing and the unrivalled candour of her words. One could perhaps find antecedents to Previn’s preoccupations with fantasy and sexuality in the work of Tori Amos or Kate Bush, but the former has been frustratingly wayward, whilst the latter often seems more mystical and estranged from reality. Previn really does stand alone in her unflinching confrontation of the darker aspects of human nature and the nuances of mental distress.

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