Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Force of Nature

Grace Jones - Hurricane (Wall of Sound/PIAS, 2008)

I can’t help feeling that the positive but reserved reviews meted out to this album have somewhat underrated the potency of Grace Jones’ comeback to proper star status (which is of course the only place a theatrical exhibitionist of her calibre would feel comfortable). Some have written it off as a throwback to the sleek reggae-infused sound of her glorious Compass Point period. To some extent it is, not least because it features the considerable rhythm section talents of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. But if this is a retrogressive step, it is more important for what it represents in practical terms. ‘Hurricane’ is very much a return to a confident and clear identity – Grace as the archetypal art-performer.

In light of having watched Terence Davies’ superb film ‘Of Time and The City’ at the weekend (more on that later), my girlfriend and I had an interesting discussion about dichotomies in popular music. Davies provocatively and spitefully dismisses The Beatles as having been ‘like a provincial firm of solicitors’. This got us considering whether The Beatles had really been untouchable innovators (the one pop band, it’s acceptable for the classical elite to appreciate, arguably now joined by Radiohead) or whether they had simply been among the first pure pop stars. I posited the claim that the divisions between ‘pop’ personalities and creative adventurers were perhaps non-existent then and certainly not as firmly entrenched as they are now. Artists like Grace Jones, although very much more performer than musician (indeed, producers of her early disco tracks bemoaned her inability to pitch a note), did much to challenge the assumed divides between entertainment and art that became starker in the 70s and 80s. She has always been able to combine musical excitement, particularly through intelligent interpretations (her versions of ‘Private Life’, ‘Warm Leatherette’ and ‘Love is the Drug’ are all very much her own) with as many costume changes as she has songs.

It’s great that the faith of the Wall of Sound label has enabled her to put this all together in front of substantial audiences again. With ‘Hurricane’, she has more than repaid their faith. The main reason I think this record is more than merely a regurgitation of ideas she already expressed concisely on classic albums such as ‘Nightclubbing’ is that her personal stamp is more clearly felt here than on any of her previous works. She had a hand in writing all the tracks (there are no cover versions this time) and some of them put her own life in the frame very much for the first time.

Sometimes, in doing this, she treads a fine line between the confessional and the sentimental. ‘I’m Crying (Mother’s Tears)’ manages to stay just on the right side, largely because of its hypnotic dubby accompaniment and because Jones’ vocal steers admirably clear of histrionics. Even better though is the strident ‘Williams’ Blood’, a gospel song written in collaboration with Wendy and Lisa that details Jones’ rejection of her father’s religious path (although the album is dedicated to him) and embracing of talents and traits inherited from her mother.

Those surprised and unnerved by this candid vulnerability might find more familiar solace in the likes of ‘Corporate Cannibal’ and the opening ‘This Is…’, where scary Grace is very much in full effect. The latter is little more than a list song, but the charismatic and icy delivery elevates it into something both teasing and threatening. ‘Corporate Cannibal’ is an assault on consumer and media capitalism delivered with raspy relish and perhaps appropriate in light of the current financial situation. It doesn’t exactly sound staggeringly new (indeed, its industrial clamour would have placed it quite comfortably on Massive Attack’s ‘Mezzanine’, an album released eleven years ago) but it does sound appropriately confrontational and imperious.

The epic title track, with Grace’s voice striking and laced with reverb, is mysterious and captivating, gradually encircling the listener in its peculiar minimalist embrace. There are more powerful melodies elsewhere on the album (the infectious ‘Well Well Well’ and ‘Love You To Life’ especially), but this is its magisterial centrepiece. Its processed bassline at least gives a playful nod to more recent musical developments – most specifically the ascendancy of grime and dubstep.

The debate will no doubt continue as to whether ‘Hurricane’ is a dated recapitulation or a bold new statement. What’s more significant is that the worlds of fashion, art, entertainment and music are once again intertwining meaningfully. As very few other performers are managing this now (Madonna has been coasting for some time, Janet Jackson no longer has the production and songwriting talent behind her that she desperately needs), Grace’s return is very much welcome.

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