Songs I Love: Rose Elinor Dougall’s ‘Hell and Back’ (2017)

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Okay, deep breath. I’m going to try and put into words just how much I love my all-time favourite song by my all-time favourite singer and songwriter who isn’t called David Bowie.

Sad songs are everywhere, and I’ve listened to, experienced, cried to, dreamt to and been knocked out senseless by so many of them. Of course I also love happy songs, I love songs that I can dance to (badly) and I love weird shit too, but given that I find music the sweetest of all artistic tonics and it’s what I turn to when I need solace and comfort – sad songs in particular can be that indescribable embrace I need the most when I feel lost. I don’t know what I’d do without them. Then there are those sad songs that encapsulate turbulent, shattering and heartbreaking emotions so well and with such power that they end up being strangely kind of ecstatic, euphoric, utterly life-affirming and vital. They make me feel deliriously ridiculous and out of my mind with pleasure and sheer sensation.

‘Hell and Back’, a highlight amongst nothing but highlights (doesn’t make sense, I know) on the amazing 2017 LP Stellular by the fucking spectacularly talented Rose Elinor Dougall, is probably my favourite example of such a song.

I mean, it is very bloody sad indeed. But there’s a kind of defiant, passionate sweep to it that means I actually don’t want to curl up into a ball when I play it – I want to sing with it (badly) and then some. It is an an incredible, miasmic and breathtaking gut-punch of a song that boasts the kind of melodic (vocal and musical) shifts that make me want to weep with awe. It so good it just makes me want to knock on people’s doors like a bloody Jehovah’s Witness and ask them if they know about the Book of Rose – I mean, how can a song this astonishing not be loved by everyone? What the fuck is going on here, people?

And that’s the thing about Stellular, the thing that makes it so essential is its sheer richness. It sounds so fucking alive – it is an incredible production, a living, breathing, existing thing – it makes me want to live. It wreaks havoc with this heart of mine (to quote another Dougall song), it breathes life into the devils and demons in my soul and reminds me just how precious and essential the sheer act of existing is.

Compared to the modest (and very lovely) sound of Dougall’s first album, Stellular tears through the speakers in spectacularly exciting style. The beat, the pulse, the pace, the sweep – all of a sudden Dougall’s music was thrillingly widescreen, cinematic and yet so intensely intimate – sometimes a band or an artist can sound like they’ve had more money thrown at them but something ends up missing in the process. Not here. This album sounds like a million quid but also sounds utterly vivid, urgent – right there in the room with you.

It’s also the kind of all-killer/no-filler pop rush that the old days of vinyl demanded – there’s not a moment wasted here. It’s almost like a greatest hits that never was – every song delivers a colossal wallop, and yet it’s not exhaustingly high-octane either. The album moves through a kaleidoscopic range of tones, emotions and paces. Wind-tunnel, high-speed pop like the title track shake hips against utterly heavenly ballads (‘Take Yourself With You’), wrenching torch songs (‘Answer Me’), dancefloor funk (‘All at Once’), motorik-fuelled duets (‘Dive’, with co-producer Oli Bayston on guest vocals) and best of all, ‘Hell and Back’.

Everything about Stellular is brilliant, but above all else is that voice. It’s the voice I’ve been waiting to hear on record all my life – so relatable, charming, seductive, heartbreaking, powerful, subtle, beautifully restrained when necessary and, thanks to Dougall’s own creativity in the studio, wonderfully malleable and stunningly treated so that it becomes a kind of instrument in itself. I can listen to this voice all day. It has ten times the impact of other, lesser singers who always think more is more, that louder is better. It isn’t. Of course it isn’t. Dougall’s voice is stunningly layered, versatile and it’s getting better and better too. One listen to her new album A New Illusion is staggering proof of that – but that’s now. I’m talking about then.

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And I need to get back to ‘Hell and Back’ in particular – starting with, er…squiggles of synth (sorry writers, producers and performers, I tried my best with that one) and a drum beat that leads into those first lines: ‘In this world, seldom few contentedly make it through’ – we all have suffered, we rarely get through life without being burned, without avoiding the fucking dreadful pain that life can throw at us. Later talk of ‘black dogs’ suggest depression is a key subject matter here. Hey, I can relate to that. I’m on anti-depressant meds, have been for over a decade-and-a-half now – they’ve been part of my life so long that taking them in the morning (and evening) is as natural as putting the kettle on and waiting for it to boil to make my first tea of the day. I’ve suffered intense anxiety, OCD, depression in the past and wow, it’s a bastard. Yet it’s also made me stronger than ever because I’ve had to fight so hard to come to terms with it and I’ve learned to cope and live through it, and with it. Songs like ‘Hell and Back’ hit me hard because of this.

Dougall sings, ‘I walk that jagged line’ – I’m not sure if this means skirting the line between a what one would consider a normal life and one that one would consider ‘ill’ or ‘depressed’ – you know, seeming fine on the outside, but terrified that one might slip and fall into the abyss of depression at any time soon. It could also mean the euphoria and despair of feeling intense emotions, feeling like you can take on the world one moment and feeling there’s no hope at another. This is followed by ‘dance alone or out of time’. I’ve danced alone – sometimes, when you’re content with a night in, a glass of wine and your favourite mix playing, that can be great, but dancing alone can be the pits if you’re in a club and you’re with someone you feel no connection with or if you’re not dancing with the one you really want to dance with.

Obviously, I’m just taking what I’m personally taking from the song – there’s no definitive meaning to a song, ever. As for dancing out of time, well I’m going to assume that Dougall’s a good dancer (anyone who wrote ‘All at Once’ has to have a sense of rhythm) and that this is more to do with just feeling totally out of sync with everyone else. Feeling disconnected. Alone at the party. The music during these verses simmer and tremble with tension – sadness, an intense, longing and nerve-wracking kind of sadness, tightly wound by the coiled playing. It’s an incredible performance by the band, and proof of Dougall’s superb songwriting and grasp of structure. With verses like these, the tension can only last so long – something has to give.

The chorus is that very give, and it exudes a strangely determined passion – ‘let’s go to hell and back again’ – there seems to be a choice being made here, a statement of intent. Maybe let’s surrender ourselves to the pain, and if we see it through together, then maybe it will be okay. But who’s Dougall singing to? A fellow sufferer? Herself? Is she looking in the mirror when she’s singing this, prompting herself to carry on?

Yet ‘I have tried, I have tried to rid myself of them’ makes me question the line immediately before. Maybe Dougall’s not the one singing the title. Maybe it’s the demon on her shoulder, tempting her to fall into darkness, and ‘no matter how I try, they always win’ could be a surrender to that darkness. Now this chorus is, without a doubt, my most beloved moment in any Dougall song, and believe me, it’s up against formidable competition. What I love about Dougall’s songs is that they are, as well as being magnificent compositions as a whole, so full of extraordinary moments that I do the silly thing all the time and rewind my fave bits of the song to experience them all over again and again.

I’ll tell you which bit in the chorus absolutely kills me – every time. It’s ‘I have tried, I have tried to rid myself of them’ – especially, that bit I’ve put in italics. Oh my god, all I can do is sit down and just fucking keep it all together, lest I just fall apart over its unimaginable beauty. And the come down of ‘they always win’ ends the chorus (and indeed the song) on a frightening, uncertain note. This is not a song with a resolution.

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‘Hold my breath, even count to ten’ – are these methods, attempts to hold off anxiety? Maybe an OCD ritual, an exercise? It doesn’t seem to work – ‘the dark clouds descend’ immediately afterwards. Thinking about these words are fucking killing me, to be honest. They’re so sad. That feeling of hopelessness – ‘it’s no use’ – it just breaks my heart. If this indeed is what Dougall’s singing about, then I can relate to that sense of despair.

The next line –  ‘will you be my sole one partner in crime?’ is delivered with such a yearning, emotional wallop that it makes me want to fucking cry. Who is this partner? If it is Dougall singing in the first-person at the start of the chorus, then the sole partner must be that same person she’s singing to. A best friend, a lover – someone who she needs here with her. ‘Partner in crime’ is a fascinating way to put this, too – it gives the whole song an almost darkly romantic air, that together the two of them can find some kind of escape, like outlaws on the run, maybe? Yet unlike the almost determined ‘let’s go to hell and back again’, Dougall’s question (and delivery of that question) is less a hand outstretched to join her on this journey and more an intensely hopeful, pleading proposal.

The black dog, that famous signifier of depression arrives immediately afterwards, that blasted, incessant, heavy and intent beast that spoils it all, that tells you nothing will be alright, that you’re right to worry, to doubt, to feel bad. ‘Here comes the black dog’ – Dougall awaits her arrival, she’s been here before, it’s happening again. ‘Feel her running wild’ – not ‘see’, but ‘feel’ – because the dog is obviously not literal, its actions, its behaviour can only ever be felt. And don’t I have a lazy imagination for being taken aback when Dougall refers to the black dog as ‘her’ and not ‘him’? For me I’ve always pictured the black dog as male, but when a girl or a woman is suffering from depression, why the fuck would they picture it as male? I’m an idiot. Maybe it’s because most exposures to depression that I’ve encountered first-hand have been from men. That’s no excuse, though.

The chorus comes again, and like all brilliant second choruses, it takes the first and builds on it – in this case, backing vocals come in (are they Dougall’s?) doubling ‘devils and demons’ and adding ‘oh I have tried’ to the relevant foreground vocals, and the effect is almost like a taunting, deceptively innocent nursery-rhyme being sung by a playfully malevolent chorus of singers. It’s totally devastating.

Then there’s the amazing middle-eight, where everything builds and builds and swirls and swirls: synths come in, at once pulsating and insistent and also moving around and over the listener, and soon Dougall’s vocals do the same– multi-tracked so they mirror this whirlpool of sound, where they become a kind of instrument in themselves. I like to think of it as a less disturbing version of Tim Buckley’s incredible vocals-only experimental piece ‘Star Sailor’. Unlike that ‘song’, where the effect was pretty fucking terrifying, the effect here is like being intoxicated, or maybe something like hurtling through the stargate at the end of 2001 – absolutely remarkable production here. Few songs have conveyed this sense of sheer sensation – it takes the song to another level entirely.

With expert sleight of hand, it all stops, with nothing but a bassline, minimal percussion, and of course Dougall’s voice singing the chorus. It’s disarming and makes you double-check yourself. The second half of the chorus sees the whole band come back in and once more, the devils and demons win, and the song stretches out for a few more moments before stopping abruptly. It’s the perfect ending to the perfect song. Brilliantly, the song that follows – ‘Space to Be’– is cut from the same emotional, despairing cloth as ‘Hell and Back’, but something close to sunshine and wild determination breaks through here, a fiery yearning to be free from it all which makes it a far more positive song, and the absolute rush of energy the music provides delivers that positivity. Together the two songs form a mind-blowing double impact.

‘Hell and Back’, no lie, is in my top ten songs of all time. It just encapsulates absolutely everything I love about music, how it can take me away, how it can take sadness and make something truly exhilarating, incredible and astonishing from it, how it can make me want to cry, how it makes me want to just want to sing, scream, sigh and swoon. Nothing beats it. Fuck it, I think it might be my favourite song ever.

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Songs I Love: Neon Indian’s Change of Coast (2013)

When I was a wee nipper, I was quite partial to video games. We’re talking the era of the NES, the SNES, the Master System, the Mega Drive. And the Nintendo64, butthat was after the era I’m talking about, so forget I mentioned that. Anyway, these video games had soundtracks. It’s amazing what one’s ears could tolerate back then. Some of those games, which had scores which I found really catchy and entertaining, now feature themes that drill into my head like some kind of burrowing drilling thing. Take Fantasy Zone, the garishly day-glo shoot-em-up for the Master System, which I played a few years ago as a download on the Wii’s Virtual Console. I could only take about five seconds of its soundtrack before I had to slam the mute button. However, some of the scores were quite splendid and have rightfully passed on into cult appreciation. The thing is though, the only way to hear these themes were to, you know, play the game. I remember taking exceptionally slow routes around game levels just so I could hear as much of the theme as possible. Not good for games where you get more points the quicker you clock the level. If I wanted to hear this music outside of an active game console, I had to resort to humming it, which was never a good thing. Still, at least I could replay the level to hear the original.

Yet what about games where there was a cracking theme played out over the end credits? There were some games that had absolutely brilliant closing themes, but the only way to hear them was to play the entire game, and then you could only listen to this fleeting piece of music for as long as the credits lasted, and then it was gone, all gone. Unless you played the whole game again. There were a couple that really won me over – the end credit themes to Super Mario Land for the Game Boy and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 for the Master System, both quite beautiful (well, I thought so at the time) pieces that felt extra bittersweet because the game was over. The absolute best one for me though was the theme that played out over the close of the SNES’ mighty shoot-em-up Starwing (originally titled Starfox in the US), a genuinely state-of-the-art game at the time thanks to the inclusion of the Super FX chip which delivered ace 3D graphics and a genuinely exciting soundtrack. The penultimate theme, played out over the rundown of all the big bad bosses you had just defeated had this almost military percussion, sparkly-twinkly synths and a strangely sad melody that I found quite unbearably moving. Well, I was only a child then. Saying that, I still hear it now and get a little misty-eyed. The theme over the actual end credits even had some rather sweet melodies too, and yet the only way to get to any of this was to get through the entire game, which was no doddle, let me tell you. I was always getting my spaceship shot down. Nowadays there is absolutely no struggle to hear either of these themes or any of the other ones I’ve just mentioned, because I can just go to Youtube and listen to the uploads. But it doesn’t feel like the achievement it felt like back then. No kind of achievement at all, actually.

My love for end credit music stretches all the way to today, by the way, with the most recent example for me being the blockbusting monster that is Grand Theft Auto V, which is personally notable for being the only game released in the last five years that I’ve actually stuck with and played right through to the end. The game itself is different to all the previously mentioned titles in that it has a soundtrack boasting loads of songs rather than only a score, though GTA V‘s score, composed by Tangerine Dream, is pretty special. The end credits to GTA V however, which go on forever incidentally, feature to the best of my recollection a set of songs created specifically for the game. It reminds me of certain films where it seems the end credits went on forever because they managed to cram in about four or five songs over it. Films like Ghostbusters II and Last Action Hero, for example. One of GTA V’s featured songs is by electro-pop dazzlers Neon Indian, a short-but-sweet slice of glittering bliss called ‘Change of Coast’. Now if this was playing over the credits of game from 1992, I’d have had to replay GTA V all over again in order to hear it, all 40 or so hours of it! That’s a lot for just 180 seconds, no matter how good. Okay, I could have turned on the game, get in a car, turn on the radio and wait for it to appear on Radio Mirror Park, but I didn’t even wait that long. Instead, as soon as the game was over, I went online and heard it again. And again. And again. So I suppose it’ll never have the same elusive magic of the closing themes to Starwing, but it’s still fantastic, and here’s why:

1. Like I said it’s only three minutes long, and whenever a song is fantastic, that’s always too short, but any longer and that epheremal magic would kind of be deflated. Three minutes has always been regarded as the ultimate pop song length, and so I can just imagine this existing perfectly within the grooves of a 7” vinyl single.

2. Those synths sound really, really 1980s. The chorus sounds like Crockett and Tubbs’ mixtape opener, playing out as the sun sets over the city. It’s got that ‘Boys of Summer’ breath of fresh air feel about it. The verses sound like they could be played over a montage in a teen romance from ’85, or playing somewhere in the house party scene as our lovable loser hero first steps through the door. The drum intro could almost be ‘Footloose’ or The Cure’s ‘Close to Me’. For some these are not good things. For me they are. The song sounds so ridiculously dated, yet in the absolute best sense. Things like a killer hook never age, even if they do sound oh-so much like a long time ago.

3. Yeah, that chorus – some moments in pop just get to the core of why I love music, and that whole ‘change of coast/change of heart’ vocal delivery, coupled with the adorable synth melody and the way it shifts key halfway through, just creamy dreamy sweet.

4. Structurally it’s a slight tease – verse, chorus, verse, middle-eight, chorus, and that’s it. The conservative in me wants another chorus somewhere in the middle, but the conservative in me is happy enough that this song sounds thirty years old and doesn’t seem to represent any kind of advancement in the timeline of musical progress. Besides, the extra long wait for the second chorus, given extra oomph by how the song’s pulse gets more insistent up until that breakout, only makes it sweeter. Also, it’s not a particularly substantial composition, throwaway even. That only seems to adds to the sheer instant fizz pop appeal of it.

5. Yeah, it just kind of ends. What, that was three minutes already? Yet it’s kind of brilliant, just a swift ending, no mucking about. Put that needle back to the start already.

PS: On Youtube there’s also a fan-made extended version, which does what we all wanted to do and make this song longer. Bravo!

Songs I Love: ‘The Story of a Young Heart’ by A Flock of Seagulls (1984)

Admittedly, if it wasn’t for Mike Score’s fucking stupid hair, A Flock of Seagulls might not have been so famous. At the same time, if it wasn’t for Mike Score’s fucking stupid hair, maybe they’d have been taken so much more seriously. Although they boasted no real classic album to speak of, despite the virtues of the first two LPs, the ‘Gulls regularly scored more than a few brilliant singles in their favour, two of which (‘I Ran’ and ‘Wishing’) are deserved mainstays in any self-respecting 80’s compilation playlist. Yet there was also the cosmic excitement of ‘Space Age Love Song’, the utterly dreamy ‘Transfer Affection’, the dark, exciting ‘Nightmares’ among others. Then there were great album tracks like the dystopian ‘Man-Made’ and the slap-bass your face fantastic ‘What Am I Supposed to Do?’

Yet above and beyond all of that, the obscurity of ‘The Story of a Young Heart’, the opening track of their so-so third album, definitely makes me sad a little. If you’re willing to exclude the excellence of those two ubiquitous singles, then ‘Young Heart’ is definitely the band’s all-time high. It wasn’t even selected as a single, which baffles me to the point of madness, for you can just imagine it doing the rounds with a vengeance on MTV, accompanied by a video where Mike rides his space-age motorcycle through the deserted memory towns of his youth, pining for lost loves and lost times through sunset-dappled late summer evenings. A video to go up there with ‘Broken Wings’, ‘Summer of ‘69’ and all that. It really could have been a beautiful thing, were it not for Mike’s fucking stupid hair.

Anyway, forget the hair, because the music… man, the music is so sad. I mean, it’s strident, punchy, chrome-plated and very, very radio-friendly, but there’s melancholy running through every second. Mike isn’t exactly rated as an excellent singer, but his admittedly limited range works so well here – melancholic, yearning, yet glossed with that perfect MTV sheen that somehow makes it all the sadder, like a robot crying or something. The lyrics are so simple, yet they cut me good;

“This is the story of the young heart/It only seems like yesterday/That we were walking in the rain/It only seems an hour or so/Since I looked into your soul/It’s tearing me apart/To tell the story of the young heart/It only seems a week I’d say/Maybe it’s slipped into years/Since we were burning down the days/And there was happiness, not tears/The story in your eyes/Is the story of the young heart”

Okay, that doesn’t read so well, but they really do me over when sung. And it all works in perfect conjunction with Paul Reynolds’ always-brilliant, super-sleek future guitars. Reynolds’ sound is one of the most reassuringly great things about early-eighties pop, and he knew how to quicken the pulse as well as send shivers down your spine. Again, it was a samey sound – and the Gulls only had so much longer to journey before it all broke down, but there were at least a dozen remarkable Reynolds hooks over the course of their legacy. Together and with the bright, sparkling electronics and the impact of the drums (which kick off the song with a real oomph), everyone delivers the steely resolve to barely keep all of this misery in check.

Then there’s the solo, which sounds exactly as you’d expect given it follows the course of the chorus, but my god it burns my soul every time. It’s so beautiful, one of the real heart-stoppers in 80’s pop music – it tears up the skies in that searing, scorching, yet admirably restrained, understated way Reynolds’ solos do so well, and this is the bit when in the imaginary video Score gets off the bike and stares out on the peak of the hill overlooking the town and it’s all there, flooding back, poor guy. You can weep to it, or you air guitar to it, it works either way. The finale brings it all back home, though Score’s singing gets more pained, his delivery more foreboding  given that ‘you know they’re going to break your young heart’ directs the pain right at us, the listener, or at the very least whoever the singer’s passing his wisdom on to – could be a younger sibling, a good friend, his protégé, whoever. The song dies out with a simple keyboard elegy, love dies a death, so do the ‘Gulls after this song, frankly, but what a send-off. Truly one of the most gorgeous, underrated songs of the decade.

Songs I Love: ‘Never Let Me Down’ by David Bowie

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EDIT: This article was originally under the heading ‘Great Songs from Bad Albums’, but in the meantime I have been won over by Never Let Me Down – yes, it’s still one of Bowie’s weakest, but I’m very fond of it for the most part, so please be aware that my original dismissal of the LP as seen below is no longer how I feel about it. 

David Bowie’s 1980’s, more than Neil Young’s 1980’s, more than Bob Dylan’s, Paul McCartney’s, Eric Clapton’s…even the Rolling Stones, are the most notorious example of a once-great artist cashing it in and losing untold levels of credibility. The thing is, Bowie’s 1980’s material has plenty of great things in amongst the mediocrity, but I reckon the lamentations are more to do with how much Bowie lost as opposed to the actual content of the newer songs themselves. I mean, I wasn’t alive during any of Bowie’s golden years, but it’s safe for me to assume that the guy was a legend unparalleled in popular music. Then he lost it. The crossroads between good and bad is usually cited as 1983’s massive Let’s Dance album – which did feature a killer first side and the overlooked ‘Criminal World’, but was also a major jump into the mainstream which displayed a less interesting, less exciting Bowie. Would he tread even further into these commercial waters? Such fears were confirmed with 1984’s Tonight LP, a mostly dreadful misfire that not even the fantastic ‘Blue Jean’ could salvage. After that came Never Let Me Down, an unfortunately titled disaster that, while not as rotten as Tonight, was nevertheless a depressingly anonymous and weak effort from an erstwhile genius. The problems were the standard rock-fodder material, the pitiful attempts to recapture past glories (‘Glass Spider’), the empty production and a rap-cameo from Mickey Rourke of all people.

The title track however, is the one to keep. Recorded separately from the rest of the album, it has a real spirit and joyous swing entirely absent from the other songs, and whilst no game-changer in itself, remains one of Bowie’s sweetest and fun tracks from the eighties. A simple song of love, sung in a honey-sweet John Lennon-style which sways and strolls with dreamy grace – listen to the way he sings ‘you danced a little a dance ‘til it made me cry’ in particular. According to Bowie, this was his most personal song to date, which is a bit weird because the radio-friendly sheen would be impersonal-sounding if it wasn’t played with such bounce. Love the chorus too – so very, very eighties, it hurts – at least it would if it didn’t sound so cool. Listen to the way the guitar struts and then the slap bass funks out for a second or two, and then Bowie’s lovely harmonica wails and sighs. I wish this song was on a better album. Ridiculously, it has also been neglected on Bowie retrospectives, only being available on various non-UK versions of his most famous best-ofs.

By the way, it’s not about a girlfriend or boyfriend, it’s about a friend, in this case Bowie’s long-time personal assistant Coco Schwab, who was with him all through the horrors of his LA years and redemptive European period, when Bowie was at an all-time low personally (and all-time high musically).

PS: Nice whistling on the outro too.