A mere 10 years after his debut solo album, no-man / Henry Fool singer Tim Bowness releases Abandoned Dancehall Dreams on June 23rd on the Inside Out label. And it’s a world away from his debut.
The Warm-Up Man Forever kicks the album off in style – the opening song seems to feed off the spirit of mid-80s Kate Bush, from the urgent Sat In Your Lap toms through to the Hounds of Love referencing strings. Although the pace of the song is definitely cranked up a few notches from these Bush classics – imagine the Siouxsie & the Banshees drummer Budgie pounding away in a post-punk stylee, if you will.
“Cruising the backstage, spitting feathers”
The Warm-Up Man Forever is a great opening song, and has really grown from the version performed on the no-man tour a couple of years ago. A blood-thirsty guitar solo from Michael Bearpark brings the song to it’s end.
In an alternate universe, this is the track that opens this weeks edition of Top of the Pops, pop pickers.
But that was just a phase…
Smiler At 50 slows the pace, and sets the tone of loss and regret that runs deep throughout this album.
“The girl that Dads could laugh with, a face just right for first kiss”
A beautiful, aching string refrain signals the middle section of the song, as it heads towards its unexpectedly proggy ending. Fans of Steven Wilson‘s recent albums will love this powerful, dissonant outro. The songs on this album have really been given the chance to stretch and find their own space, with longer instrumental passages that are missing from previous Bowness solo material.
Before you have a chance to recover, the most heartbreaking track on the album hits you. Songs Of Distant Summers is in the mould of the classic no-man ballads of years gone by. Hanging piano chords, underpinned by sweet synth layers and deep bass, with a lyric that touches on the feeling musicians sometimes experience during that intense moment of creativity.
“Sweet songs from fading summers, old friends who grew apart”
For some reason, this song reminds of the wonderful, blissed out classic Winter in July by Bomb the Bass. I remember reading an interview many moons ago, I think it was with Bernard Sumner from New Order, who said he woke up to Winter in July playing on the radio and he thought he had died in his sleep and woke up in heaven.
Whilst Songs Of Distant Summers is virtually beatless, it has that heavenly feel mixed with found-sounds buried deep in the mix, and it takes you to another place. Oh, and I’m always a sucker for any song with rhodes piano.
I’ve been living with the album for nearly six months now, and I really do believe that Songs Of Distant Summers is up there with no-man’s Truenorth as one of the finest Bowness songs.
She sees the factory buildings…
Waterfoot has shades of another Bowness vehicle, Memories of Machines, his collaboration with Giancarlo Erra from Nosound. The lyrics and music reference an industrial Northern England long since disappeared (in a similar way to the excellent Big Big Train). Emotive synths (plus more rhodes, yay) and a lovely acoustic guitar reference Steve Hackett and a little of the spirit of early Genesis to these battle-scarred ears. Waterfoot really grows after repeated plays, and it’s playfulness is a joy.
This may be controversial, but I will fight the corner for Dancing For You being on a par with some of the mid-80s Phil Collins ballads. Yep, you read that correctly. Phil Collins has always been an easy (lover) target – but In the Air Tonight, If Leaving Me Is Easy and Don’t Let Him Steal Your Heart Away are wonderful songs. Have a listen, and let go of your prejudice.
Anyway, back to Bowness. The piano and 80s drum machine might reference classic Collins, but the lyrics are much more hard-hitting and direct than anything Mr Sussudio has committed to vinyl.
“She was dancing for you, and you looked away.
Dancing for you, another you, on another day”
The 70s sounding backing vocals and decaying guitar top off probably the saddest song on the album. And the sad songs say so much, don’t you know.
Smiler At 52 finishes the story from earlier in the album’s song cycle, and sadly it’s not ended well for dear old Smiler. Glitchy percussion and a nagging keyboard line underpin the story of a lonely, middle-aged Smiler and her mountain of regret.
“Far from young and not yet old.”
Looped vocals and an engaging bass-line take the song to its fade.
I Fought Against The South is the longest track on the album, and probably the biggest surprise on first listen. It’s the track on the album that really captures that live no-man feel from the recent live dates, and is almost a cousin to one of my favourite no-man songs, lighthouse.
A wonderful, loping beat and heart-wrenching strings and solo violin drive this slow-burning epic track. It’s a perfect headphone track, with great separation between instruments – listen as a dirty, scratched organ smashes into the mix 1/4 of the way through, and then disappears, taking the strings with it.
“The dream was in tatters, so what did it matter? My temper was quick but my movements were slow”
After a few seconds of near silence, the toms usher in the final, powerful instrumental section. Played loud, the fluttering cymbal work and interplay between guitar and keyboards is up there with the finest modern-day progressive music.
Too much is not enough
Normally, I Fought Against The South would be the perfect album closer, but Bowness has chosen to close the album with Beaten By Love. The oldest song on the album, this is the definitive version. A perfect post-punk bookend to the album opener, Beaten By Love is the darkest track on the album, with some fine bass work by current no-man bassist, Pete Morgan. Tim’s partner in no-man, Steven Wilson, as well as mixing the album, contributed the frankly evil-sounding guitar to the album’s menacing closing track.
“So completely, beaten by your love”
Abandoned Dancehall Dreams deserves to be heard by as wide an audience as possible. It’s almost an oddity in the modern era, a throw-back to those carefully sequenced releases from the golden era of classic albums.
Its a release that I think will eventually be considered as a career highlight. The attention to detail is evident throughout the whole package – from the range of wonderful, individual performances from musicians such as Pat Mastelotto (King Crimson), Porcupine Tree‘s Colin Edwin, Anna Phoebe and members of the no-man live band, to the album mastering by Pink Floyd engineer, Andy Jackson.
Potentially my favourite album of 2014? I thought it would be when I first heard the album back in January, and I’ve yet to hear anything released this year to make me think I was wrong.
Sounds of Distant Summers
The two CD version of Abandoned Dancehall Dreams contains a companion CD of alternate versions and out-takes. The wonderful Grasscut contribute a string-driven, more percussive take on Smiler at 52.
Ambient keyboard overlord Richard Barbieri (Japan / Porcupine Tree) delivers a colourful mix of Songs Of Distant Summers, seeped in the nostalgic tick of clocks, childrens toys and low, rumbling bass synth.
UXB serve up the most radical alternate mix, with the boy and girl vocals of Dancing for You brought to the fore, and the Bowness lead vocals completely stripped out. It’s almost like an electronic Swingle Singers! Please believe me when I say it works really well.
The 5 remaining tracks are out-takes from the album sessions. The track Abandoned Dancehall Dream is a bossa-nova beat, scratchy stereogram sounding track over which Bowness croons “the sound of dead men singing (they love you)”. It reminds me of the music of The Caretaker (think Kubrick’s The Shining), and it’s an intriguing shorter than short song, that whilst it fits the abandoned dancehall concept, sonically does not fit on the main album, but thankfully has found a home on the companion disc.
The same can be said of The Sweetest Bitter Pill – a jazzier song than any on the main album, with some lovely synth work. It featured in early album sequences but always stood out a little, and so found it’s rightful home on disc two.
The Warm-Up Man Forever (band version) sounds like early U2 fed on a diet of Icicle Works albums. It’s good to hear this early take, which sounds like my memory of how no-man performed this track on their last tour, but it’s surpassed by the main album take.
The remaining two tracks are alt-takes of Songs of Distant Summers, recorded during the early band sessions for the album. More guitar driven than the album version, they offer a different perspective, but as WUMF, the seeds cannot compare to the full-bloom.
Whilst you will probably dip into the companion album every now and then, its the main album that you will find yourself returning to time and time again. So treat yourself to a copy from one of the links below.
Order Abandoned Dancehall Dreams from Burning Shed.
Buy the CD from Amazon UK
Buy the CD on Amazon US
Visit the Tim Bowness website
Tim Bowness pictures by Charlotte Kinson