Primal Scream – More Light review – a real return to form

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Simon Poulter of What Would David Bowie Do? salutes the barnstorming return to form that is Primal Scream’s new album More Light


These are bleak and desperate times, people. We know this because we keep being told they are. As if the sight of increasingly vacant high streets, lengthening dole queues, a largely old Etonian government in Britain (run by “a pair of gay antique dealers”, according to Rich Hall) and Daft Punk recreating 1980s disco do not remind us.

Back in the 1980s, when things were last so bleak and desperate (increasingly vacant high streets, dole queues, old Etonian government run by a greengrocer’s daughter, Georgio Moroder blasting out of discos, as “clubs” were known, etc, etc) there were few truly erudite examples of the social and political zeitgeist captured, despite the actual agit-prop spirit of the times.

I would argue – but then I would – that The Specials’ Ghost Town, White Riot by The Clash or Weller’s Town Called Malice nailed it as good as any, though I still hold a candle for Robert Wyatt’s Shipbuilding (more about the Falklands than Thatcherite blight). There were well meaning protest organizations like Red Wedge, and Live Aid came along in the midst of the decade to shame us into giving up either what money we had, or the grotesque piles of it we were spending on pastel-shaded clothing.

And so it remains today. Thanks to the blandification of entertainment in general, no one is making a stand anymore. Now, this can be viewed as both bad and good. On the bad side, it seems that people seem to be accepting their fate and carrying on watching tripe reality shows featuring fame-hungry charlatans. On the good side, Sting has stopped writing curdled songs about Russian parents and Argentinian victims of human rights abuses, and trying to convince us that he actually gives a damn about coal mines being shut down.

When Bowie’s The Next Day came out of the blue to declare that a) The Dame was alive and b) He’s been reading the papers a lot, we were presented with his view of an imagined – but increasingly likely – dystopian future. Primal Scream have come along to something similar with their new album More Light, which shines a follow-spot on the dystopia of the present.

However, as with all Primal Scream records, don’t expect anything too deep. The lyrical legacies of Dylan and Woody Guthrie, even Springsteen’s take on the modern condition, are not under any recognisable threat. As we have grown used to with this band, More Light must be enjoyed at a relatively superficial level, i.e. whatever section of Bobby Gillespie’s vinyl record collection he has chosen to plunder this time. The result, by the way, is never bad. You just don’t want to get too involved in what he’s singing about.

As a lyricist, Gillespie has always been a great ex-drummer. The case for the prosecution stops with Exhibit 1A, m’lud, Rocks: “Dealers keep dealin’/Thieves keep thievin’/Whores keep whorin’/Junkies keep scorin’/Trade is on the meat rack/Strip joints full of hunchbacks/Bitches keep bitchin’/Clap keeps itchin’.”

Things haven’t improved much in ten years, if the nine-minute vibeout 2013 which kicks off More Light is anything to go by. It lays into modern Britain with well meaning, if slightly misappropriated venom, though it does make prescient references to the children of Thatcher’s heritage: “21st century slaves! A peasant underclass!”. Not exactly Shelley, but you get the point.

Removing 2013’s lyrical content from the equation, and letting the vocal simply become another instrument, it’s an impressive track, spread over an ambitious grandeur that mixes Middle Eastern brass with the chainsaw guitar of My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields. By its end you are left lacking any doubt that you have landed back on Planet Gillespie, in all that entails.

River Of Pain continues in the same dystopic vain, depicting a less than rosy domestic scene in which the drunken ‘Johnny’ (Gillespie’s stock character, you may have noticed…) who treats his lady ‘Susan’ like a punchbag, with a distinctly trippy sequence midway through the seven minute piece clearly representing a narcotic escape for one of them (replete with Beatle-esque psychedelia, a looped string sequence that reminds me of the intro to the Six Million Dollar Man theme music) before returning to a vibey Delta blues guitar riff and a sultry – and highly addictive – creeping undertrack.

If 2013 risks going down the route of Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start The Fire by featuring a long list of cultural references, Culturecide walks even more awkwardly towards an attempted drive-by rapping that includes mention of the neutron bomb.

Perhaps it’s simply that “neutron bomb” scans well and has so many potential rhyming partners, but no two words annoy me more as a lyrical prop. In songs from artists as varied as Pearl Jam and UB40 (who managed to rhyme it with “Pentagon”), it’s lyrical inclusion has always made as much sense as anyone in a TV show feverishly hacking away at a computer keyboard when there is a perfectly serviceable mouse on the very same desk.

Anyway, back to the record, and a return to the Mount Florida estates of Gillespie’s native Glasgow with Tenement Kid, a bass-driven jazz-dub that paints a non-too-subtle picture of disaffected youth in the urban jungle of 21st century Britain. On Invisible City there’s a touch of latter day Bowie, with its grinding guitar intro and brassy chorus, while Sideman could easily have appeared on The Next Day. Indeed, the two albums share many common themes, though, sadly not the same degree of wordsmith dexterity as mastered by Bowie on his release.

If there’s one thing about More Light that sets it apart from almost anything else out there it’s the disparate directions Primal Scream move about the record in. Goodbye Johnny (yep, him again) bops along with a noirish swing before introducing a delightfully retro-King Curtis saxophone lead.

That the Primals have access to well-thumbed collections of vintage vinyl has never been in doubt, as the obvious Stones nods of Rocks and Country Girl generously demonstrated. More Light does open up the record cabinet a little wider, with Elimination Blues – featuring no less than Robert Plant and black-chick backing vocals – actually sounding like a song Plant might have easily recorded in his exploration of American roots. It’s also one of the most satisfying tracks on the album, with its pumping, looping bass and sweaty late night blues.

Be warned, however, when you reach the final track of the ‘regular’ version of More Light (the deluxe version contains an extra six songs). Because, if you’re British, you may be alarmed by the title It’s Alright It’s OK. Thankfully it is not the theme song to TV’s ‘light hearted’ crime series New Tricks, the one for which Dennis Waterman “writes da feem toon and sings da feem toon”, as Little Britain helpfully pointed out he does tend to do.

Thankfully, too, Primal Scream’s It’s Alright It’s OK is not in the same vein as its chirpy, postman-friendly counterpart. Instead, it is a truly uplifting return to the happy-clappy gospel vibe of Movin’ On Up, filching The Faces’ “Ooh-la-la” hook in the process to produce a song as reassuringly ‘up’ as the lyrical premise of 2013 was a dour reminder of just how bleak these times are.

Lyrics aside, More Light is a return to strength for the Primals after their disappointing Beautiful Future five years ago. Produced by David Holmes, the northern Irish DJ responsible for one of my favourite film soundtracks, Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, there is a warm intimacy to this album than anything Primal Scream have ever produced before. Thanks to Holmes, it is less of a basement recording and more of an upmarket loft apartment of a record. The edge is there (and Shields’ guitar plays a large part in that), but so is a more measured cocktail of the band’s obvious love of vintage sounds, and a newer, more innovative approach to making music. Just don’t listen too deeply to the words…

Article originally published here.