Review Summary: You're Gorgeous it most certainly ain't
Whenever I tell anyone I’m into Babybird
, conversation invariably turns to You’re Gorgeous
, their poptastic UK smash hit from 1996. What most people don’t know is that a) behind said hit single’s pretty, singalong chorus and bouncy melody, the lyrics actually deal with some pretty unsavoury subject matter and b) its out-and-out poppiness is basically an aberration in the band’s catalogue. Prior to his success with Babybird, frontman Stephen Jones toiled for years in obscurity, committing his bedroom demos to four-track, before recruiting a full band and adopting the name Babybird in 1995. Jones’ generally left-field approach to the pop song, as well as his limited but not inconsiderable instrumental skill, was carried over to the three albums which the band produced between 1996 and 2000.
Enter There’s Something Going On
, the band’s second album proper. Though nowadays it’s as rare as hen’s teeth (no pun intended…ok, maybe a little bit), it’s well worth tracking down for fans of vocal pop which is tuneful but actually has something to say for itself. I hesitate to use the word ‘quirky’, as this has been used to describe some of the worst musical atrocities ever committed to tape, but Jones’ music is certainly unusual in its mixing of poppy hooks and pretty, circular melodies with some blackly humorous, often deeply cynical lyrical content. Probably the best contemporary comparison I can make is with Morrissey; both have a broadly similar, world-weary attitude, and in both cases the musical backing ultimately takes a back seat to the vocal and lyrical performance.
How you react to opener Bad Old Man
will determine whether or not you can stomach another hour of Babybird’s music. It’s not a particularly accessible start: over a dirge-like piano figure and mournfully descending bassline, Jones solemnly mumbles some of the most twisted couplets ever to feature on what could be described as a ‘pop’ album: “He had a bad old man who beat him / took a hammer to his knees just to please him”
. It gets even better (or worse, you decide) when Jones’ vocals suddenly kick into gear with the soaring refrain, “He drowned his stepson in the duck pond”
, before the song concludes with a succession of perversely populist "sha-la-la"
s, struggling to be heard against a roaring typhoon of strings.
This combination of jarring lyrics, darkly poppy sensibilities and slick (if sometimes fairly rudimentary) musical accompaniment pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the album. Though little of what comes after is quite as mercilessly depressive as Bad Old Man
, there are certainly moments which equal it, notably the harrowing Take Me Back
and the creepily manipulative tone of You Will Always Love Me
’s narrator. In both cases, however, Jones juxtaposes the nastier elements of the song with some FM radio-worthy hooks: he’s nothing if not a veritable pop wolf in sheep’s clothing. Thus on Take Me Back
, a skeletal piano ballad telling the story of what one can only assume is a woman in the aftermath of a sexual assault, Jones croons his lines in a sickly falsetto; in a similar fashion, the Kathy-Bates-in-Misery
lyrical direction of You Will Always Love Me
is offset by a swell of misleadingly sweet harmonies.
However, though Jones proves himself to be worryingly in touch with his darker side, he is just as capable of some wickedly funny wordplay. In describing a fumbled advance towards a woman in First Man on the Sun
, for example, he is hilariously astute: “Caught my brain in my zip / Let my intelligence slip / As I failed to get you into my bed”
he intones, sheepishly. Then there’s the middle ground, where you find yourself first being impressed with Jones’ exceptional word-smithery a split second before realising the true horrific import of what he’s saying. All Men Are Evil
’s tale of some unnamed unfortunate who “should have been put down at birth” is a case in point. “The people can’t decide whether to laugh or cry / I say hang him on the TV, don’t give a blind f**k / this man deserves to die”
is certainly clever, but leaves the listener’s ears feeling slightly soiled afterwards.
Those looking for an answer to The Hit will ultimately walk away disappointed. The misty-eyed sentiments of If You’ll Be Mine
and Back Together
are probably the closest the album gets to recreating the euphoric effect achieved on You’re Gorgeous
, but again the songs are shrouded in melancholy, which ultimately keeps them grounded them in harsh reality. Behind the strings and the return of the ubiquitous "sha-la-la" refrain, If You’ll Be Mine
is a restrained effort: pushed by Babybird’s record company as the successor to You’re Gorgeous
, it ultimately didn’t click with the record-buying public. Back Together
is a heartbreakingly beautiful work, but songs that deal in such grimy detail with the death throes of a relationship do not hits make, even when they include lines as inspired as “I can’t make you feel good / You can’t make me feel bad / I’ll never get you back / So you’ll never be sad”
Jones hasn’t got the widest range in the world, but he’s tuneful enough, and his voice is thoroughly easy on the ears. Occasionally, as on the melancholic title refrain of It’s Not Funny Anymore
, he invests his lines with true emotion which breaks nicely from his otherwise faintly dispassionate delivery. To return to the comparison I made at the beginning of the review, though, Morrissey’s music doesn’t particularly suffer as a result of his vocal limitations: it’s all about the lyrics. If you’re prepared to take the frequently downbeat content of this album with an occasional grain of salt, you’ll find that the real achievement of this music is in its Trojan Horse-like mix of spiky lyricism wrapped up in beguiling, sugary melodies. By the time There’s Something Going On
’s short, (bitter)sweet title track closes out the album, many of these melodies will probably be lodged firmly in your brain. Like a handful of rusty nails, as Jones himself would no doubt describe the feeling.