Sunday, November 03, 2013

Helen Love — ‘Day-Glo Dreams’

Last Christmas, Helen Love put out a red vinyl single called ‘And the Salvation Army Band Plays’, which went: ‘I wrote you a letter and a Christmas card / But I didn’t send it to you ’cause you’re not in this world’. In the scene it sketched, Songs of Praise is on TV, the flat is a mess, and freezing. It’s the bleakest Christmas song I know, and the first Helen Love record ever to leave me feeling down. At the time it struck me as brave, but something of a mis-fire. It was certainly a change of direction: It’s My Club and I’ll Play What I Want To, the preceding album, was a pure rush of fun, and ‘Calm Down Dad’, the only other single in the interim, was in the same mould. They hit such a high with that album: as subject matter, the 1970s were a golden age, an inexhaustible supply of joyful songs, it seemed. But ‘And the Salvation Army Band Plays’ is desolate (I was going to say contemporary and desolate, but you can’t really tell when it’s set). There’s a song on Day-Glo Dreams called ‘Our Mum and Dad’, built on a similarly heartfelt foundation, which has quite a different effect.
Our Mum and Dad, they look straight down the lens
In funny flared trousers on the banks of the Thames
On holiday June ’75
Knowing what’s coming, those opening lines make me gasp, I can’t get enough breath in; and yet the sound is lighter than the gloomy Christmas song. There’s humour and a ton of affection in place of that song’s despair. It’s so beautiful, like Hüsker Dü’s ‘Hardly Getting Over It’ with more attention to detail, and I’m always in bits by the time it gets to:
The ’90s flew by and Dad moved to his chair
And Mum left the choir as she couldn’t get there
And nobody came to the house
Side one ends with some deft synth-string twirls, and you sit, not knowing what hit you, and not wanting the people you love to ever get old. You need the vinyl version, because you need the pause.

Around the core of this deeply moving song blooms what is probably Helen Love’s best album. It follows the fluid, glitzy 1970s of It’s My Club with a starker, clunkier 1980s, which pop music is at once a part of and an escape route from. The instrumentation seems crude at first: a pseudo-Fairlight staccato clatter, which mimics the bombast of mainstream ’80s pop, but never mocks it. Simultaneously, the lyrics move from eulogising a heavily mythologised 1970s to dealing directly with a far more down-to-earth 1980s, reserving the right of course to eulogise discos within that (see ‘You and Stacy’). ‘We were the useless kids from the hard estates’ sings Helen on the title track, explaining at a stroke why the Ramones and Rodney Bingenheimer and Gibson Les Paul Deluxes, and that whole glorious world she’s spent years constructing, were necessary in the first place. ‘Shy Girl’ is part of the explanation too, actually:
Now I’ve fallen for a shy boy
What a dumb thing to do
’Cause he’ll never be my boy
’Cause I’m just a shy girl too
Whilst also being definitive on the subject of shyness (and a big YES! for that), it’s surely implied that the Helen Love masterplan is partly facilitated by shyness: either you can get into fights with the bad kids, or you can retreat and make something amazing (cf. Kristin Hersh’s ambition for Throwing Muses to ‘leave a big, fancy present on the table and tiptoe out of the room’). Shyness can let you say all the things in life you’d like to, under certain circumstances.

‘Spin Those Records’ is a virtual re-write of Dead or Alive’s ‘You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)’, and is, as such, incredibly catchy. This and the single ‘Atomic’ go either side of ‘Our Mum and Dad’ in the album sequence; both are great pop songs, and both are set decades in the past. ‘Playing Dare / Everywhere’ is one compact couplet from ‘Spin Those Records’, making it 1981 or 1982; and ‘Atomic’ is about teenage love: ‘Don’t tell your Mum and I won’t tell my Dad / That when we are together it all goes atomic’. Mum and Dad again, but it’s alright, because it’s thirty years ago, and they’re still young themselves.

There’s something going on here that isn’t just nostalgia, and which steps way beyond the fandom and the teen tales of their earlier songs. Take ‘Bubblegum’, for instance, from Radio Hits 2. There’s a young man on a bus, going to work. He’s been dumped suspiciously wittily by his girlfriend (‘You should put an advert in the music press / “Sensitive boy needs a girl in a flowery dress”’ — ouch!), and he wishes he was ‘fourteen and going to school’, instead of grown up, with a bruised ego and on his way to a dreary job. You’re not supposed to feel all that sorry for him, but still, the distancing is there: he’s probably only seventeen, but he wishes he was fourteen. That’s the age to be. Day-Glo Dreams revisits this kind of territory a lot, but no longer from the vantage point of the late teens or early twenties, and you could react in several ways. ‘I’ll meet you outside the Spar when I have finished my tea / I’ll make sure no-one’s following me’ could be a bit of a strange thing to be singing in your (I’m guessing) early forties, but alternatively, in doing so with a clear, unblinking eye, you might end up with a record which contains all the fun of dancing in discos to ‘Don’t You Want Me’, and all the pathos of the years gone by. ‘Don’t Forget About This Town’ links present and past neatly in a bus ride through a dying town centre:
And all around town more shops are closing down every weekend
And I’m staying on the bus with you
’Cause there’s nothing else we can do
Nothing in real life, maybe, but there’s always pop music to escape to. Turn up the synth and the Linn drum beat.


The illustrations are my niece’s entry in Elefant’s colouring in contest, the original art being by Jean Duprez, who I hadn’t realised was also behind the BMX Bandits in Space cover.

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