While Blur continue to plumb the depths of their fans’ enthusiasm and nostalgia, reuniting this summer for the second time in three years to play a special one-off concert in Hyde Park to cap off London’s Olympic festivities along with The Specials and New Order (I’ll be honest – this did tempt me for more than a couple of seconds. Happily good critical sense – as well as Larissa – intervened), guitarist Graham Coxon continues to evolve as an artist. A+E, his eighth album in a solo career that began with 1998’s The Sky Is Too High, is unlike anything he’s ever done and it’s definitely not a stretch to say that his solo work has always been more interesting than that with the band that made him astronomically famous. As fans will know, his albums are notable for not relying on the skills of session musicians, instead with Coxon calling on his own formidable musical talents to play most of the instruments himself. He’s mastered countless guitar styles, not least of which is the finger-picking folk he used extensively on his last album, 2009’s The Spinning Top, an elegant, pastoral, sprawling concept album about a single man’s life, from cradle to grave. And speaking of which, part of what pleases me so much about A+E is the wilful regression and contrast between the two albums. Where The Spinning Top is lush and beautiful and peaceful, A+E is raucous, youthful, and angry. Of course, sneering punk music is generally far more up my alley than folk, and Coxon’s self-imposed regression into the seemingly juvenile fascinates me, so it’s clear that I find this foray intriguing.
It’s also no secret that this is far from Coxon’s first dip into lo-fi punk and experimental guitar shenanigans. His first four albums are all pretty rough, and as he was in Blur when he released all of these, it’s easy to assume and is probably mostly accurate that many of these noises were meant to distance himself from Blur and alienate himself from their sometimes teenybopper fanbase. He was known then for his love of American college rock and indie punk bands in particular (that influence being a major reason why Blur switched styles between The Great Escape and Blur) and the influence of groups like Pavement, Hüsker Dü, and Dinosaur Jr. is as evident now as it was then. On A+E, the departure from this style comes in the form of electronics and an undeniable krautrock feel. In fact, the record is pretty much half-and-half loose, messy punk, and the driving motorik influence of krautrock, giving these songs a dark yet dancey feel that’s incredibly appealing.
We begin with “Advice”, a snotty punk number that is the antithesis of anything and everything that appeared on The Spinning Top. His lyrical bile (“Just shut the point/ Tough break man, it’s not enough/ Completely tough, fucking enough”) is accompanied by a shambolic riff that breaks down even further at the end of each phrase into feedback and out of tune guitar squeaks. Also, it’s fantastic. Possibly the only advice necessary for this track is to play it LOUD. “City Hall” plunges us headfirst into the drum machine-produced motorik beat that appears several more times on the record. Its repetition is contrasted by well-placed jabs of guitar and horn honks alongside jazzier guitar figures and a subdued but equally repetitive lyric. “What’ll It Take” is where the dance element is fully introduced in a heavily electronic, synthetic, spiraling way. I realize that the point of much of this album is a kind of a ‘70s and ‘80s-influenced charming cheapness, but for me this track crosses the line into cheesy cheapness, the repetition here not quite coming off. It may need more of a melodic sensibility to prop it up, or at least one or two more hook ideas, but the glaring simplicity on “What’ll It Take” makes it a pass for me. That said, I do have some time for the ending, where he shouts “What’s wrong with me?” over increasingly frantic electronic noise.
Things pick up again, although not necessarily tempo-wise, on the droning “Meet and Drink and Pollinate.” While the focus here is on the lower end of the guitar’s range, what stands out as a highlight is Coxon’s heavily processed voice with almost no variation in the notes. This robotic romp is capped off with a sax solo that undercuts the midtempo droning effect, albeit played in the saxophone’s lower register. Next up is album standout “The Truth”, a dark, post punk influenced, apocalyptic dirge with a monster riff. The rhythm section is on display here, bass and drums enmeshing to create a wall of ominous sound that’s as dystopian as the words. As Coxon sings “Slide into the dark, it’s taking shape around you/ Pretty soon it’s all that you will know” I’m reminded of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” if it were done in a different genre or Coxon’s own “You Never Will Be” from Crow Sit on Blood Tree. There’s a menacing, looming guitar figure on top of all this sludge two-thirds of the way through, where it’s more evident that the bass is subdividing the beat, and a perfectly-fitted little hip shake is injected to intoxicating effect.
“Seven Naked Valleys” sounds positively lightweight in comparison (even though it’s not). A groovy number that’s a vehicle for some deliciously raunchy sounding saxophone, it’s also got bizarre bleeping electronic noises, a woman’s sampled voice, squealing guitars, all on top of a reliably steady motorik beat. These sounds converge at the end of each verse, and when Coxon ends his vocal phrase on a trio of ascending notes that are almost a strain, some extra noise is introduced too, and it sounds awesomely chaotic. “Running For Your Life” is perhaps more unabashedly fun than anything else here, although no less gleefully boisterous. Yes, it’s about escaping a gang of bullies, but between the hastily-delivered vocal lines and pop-punk riff that alternates with an all-out squall of noise, it reminds me a bit of the state of childhood: loud and busy and enthusiastic. If cleaned up and prettified, this wouldn’t be out of place on an album like Happiness in Magazines or Love Travels at Illegal Speeds, but there’s something really addicting about the messy, lo-fi production that’s used to offset any commercial potential the melody may have. The album ends on a mellower note with “Ooh, Yeh Yeh”, a blues-influenced song that forgoes dissonance and loudness for pretty harmonies and contentment. It’s an appropriate ending, too, as Coxon has spoken about how the sessions for A+E yielded two albums’ worth of songs, with the punkier half showcased on A+E and the blues and soul influenced ones to potentially be released as an album later this year.
I’m always a fan of an album that totally cuts out the ubiquitous love song, so I think that factors into why I like A+E so much. Mostly, though, it’s the combination of Coxon’s advanced and sophisticated musicianship with songs, production, and techniques that purposely obscure his skill. His ability as a pop songwriter and performer has been pretty thoroughly explored on albums Happiness in Magazines and Love Travels at Illegal Speeds, and of course even his immense talent for guitar playing was challenged and improved on The Spinning Top. What happens after that? Well, for lesser musicians the answer is to retread old territory, and I suppose that, in his move from musical sophistication to simplicity between albums, Coxon’s doing some retreading of his own. The success of his dive into krautrock and electronica is partially due to his constant willingness to experiment, and to embrace methods and techniques he hasn’t totally mastered in order to express himself. A+E is an angrier and darker album than he’s released in years, but it’s also a much more fun album than he’s released in years, and Coxon’s joy in trying new things and embracing the results readily comes through.
A+E is out today and is available through Graham Coxon’s website.