Terence Trent D’Arby and Black Eclecticism
This afternoon, I went into high-production mode, finally preparing the 2006 compilation for distribution. It looks and sounds much better than I might have imagined. As aural accompaniment for the moving back and forth between my burner and printer, I put on one of those recordings that popped into my head last night just before I fell asleep: Terence Trent D’Arby’s Symphony or Damn.
Most people who know anything about D’Arby, who changed his name several years ago to Sananda Maitreya, know that he first became popular toward the end of 1987, shortly after the release of the album Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby. He had a few major hits in the U.S. and the U.K. from that album and was hailed in many circles as a savior for rhythm and blues (of course, no one ever explained why R&B needed saving). It was yet another case of critics, especially those writing for mainstream pop culture publications, thinking of black musicians as capable, with few exceptions, of working most effectively only in jazz, R&B, hip-hop and the like. (That story, too, is one for another time, though Maureen Mahon’s book Right to Rock, Charles Shaar Murray’s book Crosstown Traffic, and my as-yet-unpublished essay “The Black Eclectic” explore its varied facets.) Anyone who really listened to the album, of course, would have heard a musician whose skills, interests and ambitions were much broader than a label like R&B might indicate.
When, on his second album Neither Fish nor Flesh (1989), D’Arby made his experimental rock leanings more apparent, there was a huge critical backlash—with variants of the word “pretentious” appearing in almost every review. In hindsight, while the recording doesn’t have the same visceral appeal that his debut did, it is still a fine recording. Songs like “To Know Someone Deeply Is to Know Someone Softly” and “I Don’t Want to Bring Your Gods Down,” among others, show that he was a musician whose output almost justified his boast-filled public statements. In any event, I suspect that the rejection of that recording by both consumers and critics was part of the reason for the four-year delay between it and his third release, the one under discussion here.
Symphony or Damn opens oddly, with a faux operatic chorus intoning the words “Welcome to my monasteryo,” but quickly ramps up with “She Kissed Me,” the album’s first single. It’s a riff-based tune whose phased and overdriven guitars give it a decided rock edge. Perhaps the most eccentric thing about the track, one that made me think my stereo was failing when I heard the track on the radio in 1993, are the stereo effects that start around the 3:00 mark. At first they are subtle, with the lead guitar subtly shifting from left to right. Then the background voices start getting the same treatment, and, by the final fade-out, the entire mix is swirling in stereo space. The album stays in the uptempo rock mode for the next two tracks, with subtle arrangement touches and sometimes jarring interludes adding interest. Indeed, the comparisons to R&B and funk musicians that critics might have made would have been apt, but a track like “Neon Messiah”—with an arrangement featuring horns, organ, twelve-string guitars and power chords driving the song relentlessly forward—would require those same critics to widen the range of comparison to include some of the most inventive popular musicians, regardless of style.
For me, though, the real gems are to be found on the second half of the album. “Turn the Page,” for example, is one of the most brilliant syntheses of D’Arby’s various obsessions and influences. The track alludes not so subtly to funk via that workhorse drum sample, Clyde Stubblefield’s break from the late James Brown’s “Funky Drummer.” D’Arby’s fondness for quirky, whistle-like synth sounds (like those featured on “Wishing Well” from Hardline…) is on display here, as is his arch harmonic sense, especially in the dissonant, shifting horn lines toward the track’s end (starting around 4:29). Throughout, there is shimmery rhythm guitar work that is a smooth counterweight to the driving, harsher timbre of the drum samples. Likewise, the debt D’Arby owes to various soul singers is apparent in those moments when he backs away from the rapid-fire, half-spoken delivery that characterizes most of the song. And despite the negative cast of the lyrics, a scolding set of barbs aimed at some unnamed, misguided and disillusioned female acquaintance, his concluding lines are almost hopeful and encouraging: “One thing is sure / And that is change / When the water’s rising / You can’t remain / Move to dry land / Move to dry land /You’ve got to move on.”
The track that follows, “Castilian Blue,” has to be the standout. Even though it’s only slightly over five minutes long, it sounds almost epic. Psychedelic swirls of guitar, phased cymbals, a reverb-drenched mix and plaintive vocals combine with all of the other elements to make this yet another nominee for my list of nearly perfect pop songs. D’Arby does everything on the track except play 12-string guitar during the choruses, and that seems appropriate given the almost-biographical lyrical content. The opening verse describes the singer’s experiences with a woman (a Spanish model?) who profoundly and unexpectedly changed his romantic outlook. It’s not clear, however, whether he’s being critical or self-deprecating when he sings in the chorus: “Castilian Blue / Castilian Blue / I never ever thought / I’d be so taken by a girl like you.” In the second verse, though, we learn the deeper, sadder parts of the story: cultural miscommunication and infidelity became unresolvable issues, transforming a heady romance into something much less satisfying. In the lines preceding the closing chorus, we learn exactly how bittersweet the affair’s aftermath was for him: “Recurring dreams / I see her in Mirabella magazine / Multi-colored babies / Running round behind her knee / She’s long, long gone….”
There are many more great songs on the recording, including the psychedelic “Succumb to Me,” the country-tinged “I Still Love You” and the “goodbye, lover” song “Season.” Despite the album’s containing, in addition to the tracks already described, a duet between D’Arby and then-hot British singer Des’ree as well as the title track from the 1991 Hollywood film Frankie & Johnny, it didn’t do well commercially. As I’ve said about other recordings, that’s a shame. Luckily, though, there are used copies of the recording available in various places online, and if this review has piqued your interest in the slightest, I’d suggest ordering it (the cheapest one available is $.01 plus $2.59 shipping). You might just come to love this recording as much as I do.