The task of assessing the various musics of Edwyn Collins when dislocated from the man himself is, perhaps inevitably, an intensely problematic one. The onetime Orange Juice songsmith suffered from a debilitating double brain haemorrhage back in early 2005, after which he set about reacquainting his body with the abilities so many of us now take for granted. Those of being able to read, write, write music and even walk, and though he could quite feasibly have been forgiven for wallowing in pitiful misery forevermore, he’s never even so much as seemed to have done so. And so as he here croons, “They understand what it is to live their own life” during the throwback vivifying of Carry On, Carry On he appears inspired to incentivise others to make the very most of their existence, and so too to appreciate the quiet delights thereof. “People, they walk in the streets/ Talk in the streets/ How do you do, sir?” he continues, exuding both confidence and a kind of affecting compassion rarely articulated in modern-day musics.
Though this and every other one of the eleven tracks to comprise Understated are not only modern-day wonders in themselves, but so too are they produced and subsequently polished to such an effective extent that they each become concise testaments not only to the strength of Edwyn himself, but also of his unwaveringly, and similarly inspirationally dedicated wife and manager, Grace Maxwell. It was she who aided his unprecedentedly miraculous recovery; she who fought tooth and nail for his greatest hit, A Girl Like You, to be readily available for free streaming on Collins’ cherished Myspace page, and hers was the only name he was capable of uttering having suffered from aphasia as a direct consequence of his cerebral disorder. “The possibilities are endless” was then his only available idiom, and as did his sensational previous full-length Losing Sleep it’s one which once more rings true within the context of Understated.
And still, insensitive as it may seem, the music itself must of course be objectively addressed and to a degree disassociated from the harrowing context to have preceded its composition. And this here, as it was then both back in 2010 and so too before tragedy befell the Collins household prior to, is retrospective, if never retrograde. It belongs to a time prior to the adversities aforesaid though it is via this tragedy that Collins has arrived at triumph. For not only is he stronger as a man, but he is likewise more confident and composed in his music.
Whether that be Too Bad (That’s Sad) – the Fontella Bass-y single to have preluded this particular release – or the sultry minor key sulking of Baby Jean during which Collins aptly soothes, “I got music to see me through” there’s a devastating accomplishment to all he pens. “I got sunshine on a cloudy day/ And I’m gonna find a way to understand the world, Baby Jean” rolls on his singular baritone, riding high on muffled brass and pliant bass lines. This is, quite unmistakably, the sound of self-satisfaction and it’s played out with an irrevocably involving swagger – an invitation to share in Collins’ reconstructed successes.
Elsewhere, intimacy prevails: the album’s appositely understated denouement, a pared back take on Rod McKuen’s Love’s Been Good To Me, resounds a fervent thank ye to Maxwell. “And oh her eyes were tender/ And oh her arms were warm/ And she could smile away the thunder/ And kiss away the rain” he vulnerably informs atop a plaintive wilting acoustic twang, his voice a Johnny Cash drawl and although his intonation may be ambling as a Highland ramble, his message is directly transparent: “Once in a while, along the way, love’s been good to me.” He may well have “walked alone/ Hiked a hundred highways/ Never found a home” though quite unequivocally, this is the warbled call of a grateful lover the like of which we’re only accustomed to hearing “in a song from days of yore.” It’s not a protest song, and nor is Collins a protest singer but instead it is the tranquil love song from a man at peace with his every previous and indeed his present. Again, distancing author from album or songwriter from song becomes nigh on an impossibility as the two become one as the album wears on.
And this is a sentiment consolidated and made consummate by the revitalising warmth of Forsooth, during which Collins effervesces: “I’m so lucky to be alive/ That’s why I’m living my own youth” over childlike xylophonic plinks and crescendoing squalls of electric guitar. He’s living his own truth, “feeling lazy and contented” as any given Sunday, and indeed seems genuinely grateful for his very own sentience. And we should be commensurately thankful for it, for in spite of the turbulent times he and his family have had to navigate of late Collins remains one of Britain’s greatest living artists.
Released: March 25th, 2013 [AED Records]