The Album Collection – #5: 2013, Edwyn Collins, Understated

by George_East on April 22, 2013

collins-500x500Glasgow’s Postcard Records was one of the great Indie labels of the early 1980s.  It was responsible for releasing, amongst others, records by Aztec Camera, The Go-Betweens, the sadly now largely forgotten Jozef K and, of course, Orange Juice.   The bands on the label reflected a moment in popular music when the indie scene was moving on from the New Wave to a more melodic pop sensibility.

Aztec Camera’s Roddy Frame and Orange Juice’s Edwyn Collins in particular had ears attuned to the perfect pop tune.  Post-Orange Juice, Edwyn Collins would, of course, have one massive hit in the 1990s with A Girl Like You.

However, in 2005 following a radio interview Edwyn Collins had a massive cerebral hemorrhage.  This was quickly followed by another and he was left without the ability to speak, other than four phrases:  ‘yes’, ‘no’, the name of his wife ‘Grace Maxwell’ and ‘the possibilities are endless’.      I remember at the time it happened the speculation was that Collins would never recover at all, and would certainly not be able to record or perform again.

His recovery was slow but his ability to speak, his ability to sing, his ability to play (though he still cannot properly strum a guitar) and his ability to write songs gradually returned until in 2010 he was able to release his first album since his illness struck, the excellent Losing Sleep, helped out by a bunch of other musicians who played or guested on the album, including the Sex Pistols’ Paul Cook, Roddy Frame, Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos, and Johnny Marr.   The album cover was a beautiful series of drawings of birds, that Collins himself had done.

Now, three years later Edwyn Collins has released the second album of his come back, Understated.   More than Losing Sleep the album is a biographical exploration of survival and revival.    Collins’ famous baritone voice richly carries the album but it no longer has that sense of crooner-like optimism that characterised many of his earlier recordings.

Some of the songs on Understated could not be blunter about Collins’ longevity  against the odds, in 31 Years  having noted that he has been in rock n roll for that long (presumably a reference to Orange Juice’s biggest hit Rip It Up), he faces where he had been and how he got through:

I found a reason to carry on

Just for the thrill

I’m better now

I made it through my life once more

I feel alive, its good to feel 

What  the heck, I’m living now’

Perhaps it is no surprise to find that ‘the now’ features quite heavily.  This is a man who had his future snatched away from him and finds that he has got it back.   Who knows though for how long.  So, of course, he is ‘living in the now, living and working’  (‘In The Now’).

The sound varies from Roy Orbison-style ballads like It’s A Reason to the classic Motown 60s soul infused Too Bad (‘That’s Sad’) and Carry On Carry On.  In common with his back catalogue, Collins’ ear for a great pop tune is wholly undiminished.

The cracking horn-driven opener, Dilemna, sounds like something that could have come right out of the Postcard years.   It is a sing along classic that sounds as if it is from that era when every 7 inch single you bought from a record store could prove to be a pop gem.   This is followed by a great piece of early 70s soul/funk in Baby Jean complete with some lovely keyboard flourishes.

Yet it is on the countryish Forthsooth that Collins gives his most direct cry of joyful surprise at how things worked out:

It’s Sunday

It’s a good good feeling

I am lazy

I am contented

And then the key change and the unabashed (and certainly not understated) bluntness of:

I am so happy to be alive

I am so happy to be alive

That’s why I am living my own youth

That’s why I am living my own truth

And I feel alive

And I feel reborn

 ….

I’m so lucky to be alive

In lesser hands this could come off as pat or trite.   In fact it is uplifting and powerful, partly because you get the sense that he really is still pretty disbelieving of the fact that he is still alive.  This is not the typical drink and drugs rock n roll tale of self-indulgent survival.  This is instead about surviving the random shit that life throws at you.  Scarier because it is out of your hands and comes from nowhere.  The fragilty of human life revealed starkly as a brain miswiring takes everything that makes you who you are away.

If Collins feels that he is lucky to be alive, we also should be grateful that not only he survived his illness but that he is, as a result, recording the best material of his career since at least, the early Orange Juice days.  Losing Sleep was a return to form; Understated though is by a clear margin even better.   It may even be Collins’ most perfectly realised album.   Long may we have him around.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Charlie_East_West April 23, 2013 at 10:49 am

I have read a few decent reviews on this. I will purchase later.

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