It Is Not What It Is Not: Martina Topley Bird’s The Blue God
Just so you know, things are coming out in the wrong order.
Before I left for London several weeks ago to do research, I loaded my laptop with the images, audio files and other materials I needed to complete two different posts for this section of the site: one focused on an album by The Cure and another focused on one from The Pharcyde. Of course, research being for me a near all-encompassing activity, I quickly settled into a round of finding my way to the Colindale stop on the Northern Line each morning, spending the day taking notes from mid-1970s music newspapers, heading back to Bayswater in the early evening, having dinner, finding a pub to watch World Cup Soccer/Football, going to bed and doing it all again. The upshot? No (drafts of) posts satisfactorily completed. Even more, I started a third, still unfinished post, focused on an album by Everything but the Girl.
All of them are still in the pipeline, I assure you. Today’s out-of-order entry is one I just couldn’t delay. I had wanted the disc for a long time and bought it on a lark at the legendary Rough Trade store in Notting Hill on my first full day in London (along with discs by Beak>, One More Grain and several others).
The disc in question is The Blue God (2008), the second proper solo release from Martina Topley Bird. She’s perhaps best known to some US listeners as the vocal foil for Tricky on Maxinquaye (1995) and/or as an occasional guest on recordings by Massive Attack—including the tracks “Babel” and “Psyche” on their latest release Heligoland. An even smaller group of people might know her for her debut album Quixotic, which was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2003. Its 2004 US release was renamed—Anything—and featured a bungled resequencing of some tracks and the elimination of others present on the UK/rest of the world release. Taken together, those paths of discovery mean that few folks in the US are acquainted with her—or with what they’re missing.
Topley Bird’s voice is located somewhere in a neighborhood that includes the voices of Nina Persson (of The Cardigans and A Camp) and Kazu Makino (of Blonde Redhead). To make that comparison, though, is to do Topley Bird injustice. Persson’s voice (which I love) is one that I hear as an always ironically detached metacommentary on the content of whatever lyrics it interprets. And Makino’s voice is sinisterly girly: it sounds cute, but as a listener I often can’t shake the feeling that Blonde Redhead’s lyrics dwell in darker areas of human existence. There may be more to them than that, but I’m rarely sure exactly what she’s singing, so lyrics don’t help me to identify any consistent or characteristic stances. In contrast, while Topley Bird can be ironic and sinister, she can also be disarmingly charming, arch and even vulnerable.
As was the case with what I wrote about Lizz Wright a couple of years back, this album foregrounds the importance of collaboration. Part of its pop sheen, to be sure, results from Topley Bird’s having worked with Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, who himself has built a career as much from production work as from his choice of collaborators—among them Cee-Lo (his partner in Gnarls Barkley) and the late Mark Linkous (of Sparklehorse). Burton produced the album and co-wrote seven of its twelve tracks with Topley Bird, and three among those seven have an additional credit for Josh Klinghoffer. “Da Da Da Da” is credited to Klinghoffer and Topley Bird; “April Grove” solely to James Barbour; and the remaining three tracks to Topley Bird alone.
The Blue God is not a straightforward pop album, no matter how much Pitchforkmedia’s dim-witted reviewer wanted to hear it as a lesser sibling to releases like those by Amy Winehouse and Duffy—white British singers who, along with their producers, seem eager to mine (but not to build upon) the pop and soul of the 1960s and ’70s. True, “Baby Blue” might recall more famous past-plundering work, but its jittery drum fills, awkward keyboard stabs and sometimes atmospheric sound effects undermine the idea that it’s an attempt at smooth, nostalgic production. Likewise, “Carnies” seems at first to come from an earlier era, but again the drumming, the odd keyboard sounds, the eerie, flangey double-tracking of the voice, and the lyrical subject say that it’s from its own time. Even “Valentine,” the most conventional of the tracks, works far from the love (or love-lost) world of classic pop, leaning more toward the more distant galaxies of Roy Orbison and Gene Pitney, at least to my ears. (The Orbison comparison, by the way, was one that the Pitchfork writer got right.) At the same time, the disc isn’t, as a review in The Guardian would have it, a latter-day, failed attempt at resurrecting or refiguring trip-hop. How anyone could hear this as a trip-hop recording, tremeloed guitars aside, escapes me. Indeed, The Blue God is in essence a mutant recording, one where there are enough elements to make it recognizably pop and trippy, but enough again to make it unsatisfying for someone wanting it to sound like its putative siblings. And that mutant quality is, to me, the disc’s greatest strength. The sinister edge in “Razor Tongue,” “Carnies, “Yesterday,” “Poison” and even “Da Da Da Da” (whose melody and lyrics consist entirely of repetitions the vocable “da”) keeps this album from being suitable as, say, leave-it-in-the-background dinner party music.
A track like “Snowman” almost demands attention, its slow arpeggiated (mostly) six-beat Wurlitzer opening and wordless background vocals sounding like something from a horror-film soundtrack. And the elevator-shaft-drop chord change that leads to the opening lines, along with the words at 0:37, does nothing to dispel that sense: “Wasn’t gonna miss him / I miss him now.” As far as I can tell the lyrics are the tale of someone who has ruined a relationship, someone who “built a fire like [she] was God” in front of a snowman. And the cruel, perverse, destructive nature of that act perhaps comes through in the song’s harmonic twists, on one hand, and the cringe-inducing, filter and pitch-swept analog synth noise at the end of the choruses (e.g., from 1:16 to 1:33 and from 2:07 to the final fade), on the other. The “strings” in the chorus add a suitable bit of gravity to the electric piano lilt and more seemingly improvised than patterned drums, but the song continually dances on a fault line: is it happy? is it sad? does it matter either way?
Topley Bird has just released a live album in the UK and the US, called Some Place Simple, and I wonder whether the same kinds of critical laziness and confusion that greeted its predecessor will reappear on both sides of the pond. “When, oh, when,” I ask melodramatically, “will critics stop writing about recordings in terms of what they expected or what they want them to be and start treating them as objects that might be judged in a much broader field?” If Topley Bird failed to make an Amy Winehouse or trip-hop album, for example, maybe that’s because she wasn’t trying to make either one. Why judge her for what she and Danger Mouse weren’t doing? Taking what she has done for what it is, rather than what it isn’t, seems a better way to really enjoy it. And I really enjoy it. Tomorrow, I'll have to get my hands on that live recording. For now, I have The Blue God to love. If you listen with open ears, you might love it, too…