The third album, and a much-welcome ray of light in my life.
Albums or songs can become synonymous with particular times in your life. They become such an inextricable soundtrack to a relationship, a holiday, a tragedy or maybe just a mood that they soon become difficult to divorce the two. For example, I can’t hear Tori Amos’ ‘Cornflake Girl’ without remembering being struck down with a horribly queasy sickness bug one week back in the early nineties; stuck at home, wishing I could participate in a game of Monopoly being played in the other room but too icky to do so. I can’t hear Suede’s Dog Man Star without thinking of being glued to my computer screen, trying to finish university coursework back around the turn of the century, April showers mingling with the early promise of summertime. And er, there’s Billy Joel’s ‘Uptown Girl’ , which I can’t think of without cringing over my awkward teenage clumsiness at my local club’s 70’s/80’s retro night from 1998-1999, which had a tendency to repeat its playlist in more or less the same order every Monday night, which led to a reassuring (if eventually wearying) familiarity. I can’t think of R.E.M’s 2001 album Reveal without lying in my bed and listening to it on headphones on a pretty Sunday afternoon, thinking about my Nan who had died only recently.
Sometimes however, it’s the gaps between albums can be taken up with an immense chapter of your life, with book-ending releases from a particular artist eerily coinciding with notable beginnings and ends in your own world.
For example, as the brilliant Supergrass released their ace self-titled third album, I was just starting university – a nervous, shy and naive 18-year old. When they released Life on Other Planets three years later, I had just left university. Still nervous, shy and naive, but changed in many other ways too. At the time I couldn’t help but compare the two parallel timelines. I realised that while the artist(s) had moved on from something old to something new, so had I, the listener. We had both connected in a big way in September 1999 and then drifted apart until I listened to them again, in September 2002. I thought to myself – I wonder if and how Supergrass might have changed after all this time. Would I still like them the same as before? Would they look different, sound different, behave different? This was all a one-way relationship, of course. The members of Supergrass had no knowledge of my existence and were not aware/interested in what I’d got up to in that three-year gap. Unfortunately, in this case, Life on Other Planets had failed to capture my imagination the way their second and third albums had, and this disappointment I felt was almost like, say meeting up with an old friend only to realise you didn’t have that much in common anymore. Oh well, time to move on, I suppose. We’d remain friends in this case, Supergrass and I, but whatever spark existed between the two of us had fizzled out.
A more recent, and tragic, example of this sort of book-ending thing occurred recently to me.
Rose Elinor Dougall’s wonderful album Stellular came out at the start of 2017 and stunned me senseless with its perfect collection of dreamy, exciting, passionate and emotional pop gems. I felt like a teenager again, overjoyed that at the ripe old age of 35 I could still discover music that was totally re-energising, exciting, passionate, heartbreaking and addictive. A song like the title track made was so good that it me dig out that old, old critical chestnut ‘it could have been a #1 single in a parallel universe’ when describing it. It was so good that awareness of what was actually selling and what wasn’t in the pop charts meant nothing to me – I just couldn’t understand why the hell this song wasn’t massive, and why its parent album wasn’t selling millions. It was accessible, it was bright, it was powerful, it was everything I wanted in a record. Songs like ‘Take Yourself With You’, ‘Answer Me’ and ‘Poison Ivy’ broke my heart into a million pieces and the likes of ‘Hell and Back’ and ‘Space to Be’ took me to the stratosphere. I even went to see Dougall perform live, and as anyone who knows me will understand, my gigging days had seriously declined by that point. I hadn’t been this much into a contemporary artist or band in well over a decade, and I regularly made a point of recommending Dougall and her music to anyone who would give me a chance.
Much of this intense adoration for Stellular existed a few months before my world changed forever, when my beautiful wife Carole was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
It wasn’t an overnight shock – she’d not been feeling well at all and we feared the worst beforehand. There was also that horrendous period when we warned that cancer might be the reason for her condition but we didn’t know for sure. Then there was that horrible, horrible day when we learned the truth, and that there was no chance of Carole surviving her cancer. From that point onwards, we both knew time was running out for her, and for us as a couple. Those next eighteen months were a surreal, painful, frightening time, but it was also intimate, beautiful, and, lest you think we were spending all our days dreading the end, also full of laughs, lazing about and us going about our usual business (when she wasn’t in pain or at chemotherapy or anything like that). Looking back now, this time feels like a feverish dream, incomparable to anything I or she had ever experienced, full of intense lows and relative highs, with the exception being that this wasn’t a dream. It was very, very real, and there was no happy, relieved wake-up at the end. ]
Carole died on the evening of Thursday 7th March, 2019. She was no longer in pain (so there was relief in that sense), but the fact was that I’d lost her forever, and her life had ended far too soon. Remarkably, her outlook on all of this had been very matter-of-fact – sure, there was anger and there was fear, but she had been so astonishingly strong (though she was quick to dismiss any suggestions that she was brave – she was just reacting the way she felt came naturally) that she gave me strength, which helped me help her, and we were both able to help each other, ultimately. She died at home, comfortably and peacefully, and with her friends and family by her side. It was about as good a goodbye as she or we could have hoped for. So now I carry on, alone without my Carole by my side – the house emptier and colder, my mind and body shattered and exhausted – nevertheless I’m strengthened by the courage and the confidence she gave me all the years we were together. She made me a better person. If you fancy a look at the kind of person she was and the things she liked, here’s a little poem I wrote for her and read out during her eulogy at her funeral.
A New Illusion, the new Rose Elinor Dougall album, came out shortly after Carole died, and the gap between this and Stellular before it saw everything in my world changed. These last two months, I’ve been listening to, reading and watching a lot of things that give me comfort, and that means a lot of familiar, reassuring stuff; the kind of musical, literary and visual cushions that soften the hard reality of my life, stuff that I’ve loved – favourite films, favourite albums, favourite stories, that sort of thing. On the other hand, A New Illusion is one of the first ‘new’ things I’ve let in to my life over this time, the only link to the past being my existing appreciation for Dougall’s earlier work. It’s a beautiful album, and boasts songs that are amongst the very best Dougall has created. With it however, comes the knowledge that, like the latest series of Game of Thrones and Line of Duty, it’s something that I experience alone. Not that I listened to music much with Carole – she listened to her stuff and I listened to mine, but I’d always tell her and share with her (or bore her, you know what us music geeks can be like) with my enthusiasm for the latest album or artist I was into. It’s sad that I can’t tell her about how much I love this album, because I do love it, and yet my reaction to it is inescapably entwined with my current state of mind. I’m 100% sure I would adore A New Illusion even if things weren’t the way they are in my life, but listening to it as a widower has almost enhanced and intensified its impact. It’s a very powerful album, and I do find myself extremely moved by it.
Just as a little extra prelude, let’s put the new album in context with Dougall’s more recent musical activity. Popping up out of nowhere in December 2018, ‘Make it With You’ was the first new music she had released since Stellular had died down – a tremulous, aching and utterly hypnotic torch song with melodic depth charges that made me feel like I’d been punched in the gut, it was cut from the same cloth as before but with a darker, sparser approach that suggested Dougall was aiming for a more direct sound. Then, when A New Illusion itself was announced, a quick perusal of the track listing revealed it was not to be included, so I had to assume that the song was intended as a stand-alone release, harking back to the glory days when singles and albums were mutually exclusive. I was all for that, although the old-fashioned collector in me would have loved a physical release of ‘Make it With You’ and its B-side.
On the day A New Illusion was announced, first single proper ‘First Sign’ was also aired, and in retrospect, it was a bit of a red herring – the sun-kissed, lazy, hazy vibe suggested a future album full of easy-going, relaxed and softly funky early-evening pop. Despite fitting into the album very nicely, little of ‘First Sign”s ambience bleeds over into its fellow tracks, with the exception of the title track, maybe. What was very obvious about this song was that it didn’t really resemble anything from Stellular at all. It made me wonder what the new album would be like, as did the lovely artwork of Dougall standing, purposefully, beside a magnificent bendy tree (I’m pretty sure that’s not the correct term) on a beautifully sunny day, a far cry from the gentle, near-monochromatic portrait of Without Why or the blurred impressionism of Stellular. Would the album be pastoral? Summery? Laid-back? The truth turned out to be a little of all of the above, but a lot more too. One last complication came in the form of second single ‘Take What You Can Get’, which sounded nothing like ‘First Sign’ and took me completely unawares. Here was a charged, tremendously exciting pop rush that dazzled the senses and revealed layer upon layer of gorgeous production listen after listen. That thick, fuzzy bass, those ethereal strings, that spacey guitar and Dougall herself, of course, on peerless vocal form.
By the time A New Illusion was finally released, I’d lost my wonderful Carole and I hoped the album would bring something beautiful into my life once more. It had been a couple of weeks, and family and friends had been extraordinarily lovely to me and I felt cared for and looked after. On an aside, Carole had often broken down in tears during her last year, overwhelmed at the kindness of others, and it’s true – it can be too much to bear, in a good way, of course. I was lucky to have so many people looking out for me. Of course though, there was the unavoidable fact that I was now living alone in a house that used to be our home, and I knew I had to cope with being by myself. The slow afternoons of days off work, the ghastly stillness of a sleepless night… that’s when things like music, and films, and literature become my solace. I had the day off work on release day, and I first listened to A New Illusion on headphones in the afternoon, sun shining outside, specks of dust floating in slow-motion by the window. Of course, I’d already heard ‘First Sign’ and ‘Take What You Can Get’, but they don’t appear until later in the album, and while I’d heard some of the other songs when a friend of mine and I went to see Dougall at Thousand Island in Islington a week-and-a-half earlier, they understandably hadn’t properly sunk into my consciousness. So plenty of of A New Illusion felt, well… new! And there is little that fills one with such anticipation, excitement, and yes, anxiety, than listening to a follow-up to an album you absolutely, unreservedly adore.
First impressions were strong – some songs drifted past, promising future, deeper pleasures, some made an immediate, devastating impact on me. There were no duffers, to put it crudely, but then I’ve never disliked any of Dougall’s songs, so that was to be expected. It also helped that the last two songs were instantly amazing, so it left a tremendous closing impression. It felt like a proper progression from Stellular too. And yet, like many new albums of this kind, it all kind of rushed by in a hazy fog on that first, and even second or third listen- it’s impossible to catch hold of all the melodies and touches, and so you’re left dizzied and swirled by it all. It’s a great feeling when you get an album like that. By the time of writing these words, the album has worked its way into my being and isn’t going to leave anytime soon, if ever. Stellular was a perfect album for me, so any more of the same, as pleasurable as it would have been, might very well have been unnecessary. A New Illusion isn’t a whiplash-inducing genre twist or Bowie-esque reinvention or anything like that. It’s just that there’s enough different here that the album, not in the slightest, resembles Stellular II. A New Illusion feels more organic, with a greater focus on acoustic instrumentation. Not that there’s anything wrong with staying still – some bands and artists have made an art form of it – but the risks and new adventures of a new approach is often more exciting and satisfying. A New Illusion leaves me just as intrigued, fascinated and excited by Dougall’s future artistic endeavours as Stellular did. The piercing, dramatic impact of these new songs may very well catch you unawares, leave you feeling exposed and with your guard down.
Forgive my prosaic structure for this part of the feature, but I’m going to talk about the album, song-by-song. ‘Echoes’ sees Dougall kick off the album in a seemingly more pared-down fashion than either of her previous LP openers. For Without Why we had the lead single ‘Start/Stop/Synchro’, which commanded attention immediately with its whirlwind, shivering melodicism and appealing commercial feel, while Stellular‘s shimmering ‘Colour of Water’, although not a single, would soon become a live favourite (it really gets going on stage) and Dougall is still performing it today. ‘Echoes’ is not single-material, but it is a perfect album opener. Comparisons have been made by others to the clipped, sparse sound of Young Marble Giants and the ghostly, otherworldly hum of Broadcast. It takes multiple listens to catch all the neat but subtle touches this song has. It’s a great introduction to Dougall’s new, ambitious and subtle approach. I must admit that I wasn’t familiar with the work of Boxed In’s Oli Bayston before Stellular, but in retrospect I can see that his production work on that album clearly brought his own sound to the table, whereas A New Illusion feels more like Dougall branching out on her own, or at least taking charge more. She could have even called the album Control if Janet Jackson hadn’t already used it for her own third album. Saying that, this is also a collaborative work – production duties are shared with Matthew Twaites, and some songs are co-writes. Of course, there’s Dougall’s band too, who are a very, very special thing indeed. Their presence is deeply felt and judiciously applied – there are moments when the bass or the drums or a guitar or a violin make an entrance and you just feel it. This is an beautifully orchestrated album, produced with care and invention.
‘That’s Where the Trouble Started’ is the album’s first classic. While there has always been a touch of English folksiness to Dougall’s sound and here it is more pronounced, although this isn’t mere genre pastiche. She’s created a kind of modern-folk here, her vocals continuing a tradition of rich, English, sensual and direct performance. There’s a shade of The Wicker Man‘s ‘Willow Song’ too, or at least I think there is. Beautifully, the song unfurls to become bigger not just once, but twice, and each time the effect is like a shiver over all of your body. There’s also the shiver of the words. I haven’t really checked out the lyrics to this album – I prefer to let the words come to me over time. I don’t want to know all this album’s secrets so soon. ‘Wordlessly’ strips everything down to the bone, and is incredibly haunting. It makes me feel like I’m lost in a forest straight out of The Company of Wolves. Finger plucked acoustic guitar flutters around and over you, Dougall’s vocals (some of her best ever) a tender caress, and at first it’s all serene and calming, but the chill air closes in and the whole thing becomes spectral, dreamily unsettling. It’s a reverie, a moon-lit reverie, quietly erotic and deeply intimate. It transcends like the Cocteaus in their Victorialand phase – a world unto itself. Definitely one of my favourite songs here. The title track is the first time (for me) the album lets a little light (well, aside from moonlight) in, as well its first really immediate pop hook thanks to its joyous opening melody, and the words include one of the most arresting lines on the album – ‘take your shaking hands in mine’. It’s little moments like this that make the album a bit of a cushion. Hey, I know Dougall’s not singing to me personally, but when songs are sung in the first person and address the listener in such a way, such reassurances become as warm as a hug and give the song a real sense of sanctuary. ‘Something Real’ offers similar pleasures to ‘Wordlessly’, albeit with added piano. Dougall has this way with a shift in melody, the kind that clutches at your heart, makes your stomach get butterflies, that sort of thing. Unlike ‘Wordlessly’ however, ‘Something Real’ reaches out into the light and becomes something to breathe and take in. It’s also evidence of how the songs on this album aren’t content to just repeat themselves, they add extra instrumentation as they progress, like the rumbling drums from the second verse onwards. I didn’t even notice their presence the first couple of listens, but soon I found them to enrich the experience immeasurably – also, the song seems to shift into a luxurious, Pink Floyd-ish kind of groove.
‘Take What You Can Get’ is an instant classic, showcasing Dougall’s knack for melodic hooks but layering them with lots of thrilling touches. Listen to the way the word ‘ether’ echoes into the, well..ether. Listen to those ripples of guitar. Those exquisite strings. It’s this album’s ‘Stellular’ – a total goosebump-tickling swirl of miasmic sensation, a beamed-in-from-outer-space classic. It’s as though the rush of the middle-eight of ‘Hell and Back’ has been honed into a tangible pop song, and it’s a testament to Dougall’s increasing production mastery. Also, this song hits me deeply in other ways, especially when hearing a couplet like ‘Take what you can get/before there’s nothing left’ – here I hear the fragility of life, the passing of time, the need to grasp at the fleeting pleasures, those magnificent moments. Having experienced death so close to me, the shortness of life feels all the more urgent and alarming lately. It’s a scary, sobering sensation, but it also makes one want to live more than ever, even if right now I feel too emotionally battered to go rock climbing or anything like that. ‘First Sign’ works splendidly after the highs of the previous song. It’s a wind-down, preparing us for the emotional ride of the final three songs, and in itself is quite a lyrically turbulent thing. ‘At the first sign of trouble/I took myself away/to a place made for forgetting/I hope I lose you on the way’ As I said before, I haven’t read the lyrics to this album yet, but I’m hearing what sound like complex, honest (‘the truth undressed’, she sings) self-analysis at times. Earlier, on the title track, Dougall asks whoever she’s singing to to ‘see life as it really is’. I hear that line isolated and it fascinates me – right now my world has been knocked off its axis, and I’m reminded once more of life’s uncertainties, or in some cases, its unavoidable certainties. Life as it really is. Sometimes this can be a thrilling, exciting revelation. Sometimes it isn’t. I don’t even know if this the kind of thing Dougall’s singing about – maybe I really should read the lyrics. Thing is, I prefer to hear them, and then at my own pace. Sorry, let’s get back to ‘First Sign’, which fits in really nicely with the rest of the album, but is also a unique song in her canon – it feels like a whole new avenue for her which she could have based a whole work around, but the fact that it hasn’t got any equivalents on this album makes it feel all the more special.
The sad ‘Too Much is Not Enough’ begins with the words ‘English rose’, which always catches me off guard for obvious reasons. It’s a lovely thing indeed, and I think I remember Dougall stating this to be her favourite song from the album when she performed it at Thousand Island. It’s a real beauty, full of ethereal sounds and haunting words, but my personal favourite song here is ‘Christina in Red’, a staggeringly accomplished mini-epic (it’s Dougall’s longest song to date) that instantly captivates with its use of piano glissando – it’s a great example of how Dougall has made her music less intensely produced yet somehow larger and more infinite than before. Proof that space and relative silence can be used to open up a song like nothing else. It’s like when The Durutti Column packed their bags and went to Portugal back in the early eighties, that kind of impossibly wrenching, deeply emotional music that feels as though Dougall poured every beat of her heart into it. There’s an utterly magnificent moment around halfway through where everything blossoms and opens up like a flower, the beat kicks in, the bass pushes forward and we’re all set for a glorious extended coda with beautiful, hazy saxophone and a lurching melodic hook that’s so fucking beautiful I’m close to tears just thinking about it. I haven’t seen Dougall perform this song live yet but I’m prepared for devastating impact if and when she does so. It’s one of the best songs she’s ever given us. It could have been a fitting album closer, but then there’s ‘Simple Things’, which is just as remarkable a song. It’s the sparsest, most delicate thing Dougall has delivered – it’s utterly beautiful, and will resurface in your dreams, no doubt about it. There are gentle melodic shifts that feel seismic to this listener. Like its title, the simplest gestures this song offers are devastatingly effective. It feels incredibly intimate, like something on the level of ‘(Don’t Talk) Put Your Head on My Shoulder’ by The Beach Boys or late-period Talk Talk, where all you can hear is the song’s heartbeat, and the silences, and the tender sighing of the music. It’s a generous, wonderful close to a generous, wonderful album.
There have been some great albums out this year, but this is the one that speaks to me the most. Like Stellular, it’s an album that I’ve instantly come to love and take to my heart. It sounds great any time of the day, any time of the night, and I do need it right now – long walks to the train station to get home after a day at work are feeling painfully lonely, especially with the days getting longer and the prettiness of the fading sun against the London skyline inspiring just as much heartache in me as it makes my soul sing. Sometimes the beauty of Dougall’s music is just as tough to experience – its sheer loveliness is too much to bear sometimes. But when I can take it, it’s a magnificent thing, and this new album is also immensely satisfying from an observational perspective – by that I mean that I’m excited for Dougall’s upwards artistic trajectory, I’m delighted that she’s progressed and delivered another great album. I wish her all the best with it. She’s moved on to new territory with seemingly effortless ease. Times change, whether it’s inside or outside our control and we all have to move on, whether we want to or not. Stellular was then, back when times were what they were, A New Illusion is now, where times are different, and it’s a very welcome ray of light in my life. It’s proof of how the very best music and songwriting and singing can comfort you during the darkest, greyest and loneliest times. Thank you, Rose.