Record companies were being devoured like cold shrimp on a lukewarm buffet. The good people of Warner Brothers were disenchanted. The nervous people were hiding under their desks and trying not to get fired. With flawless business acumen, I saw this as the ideal time to suggest releasing a double album.
I first proposed this collection under the title A Case for Song, thinking this had the ring of an old Noel Coward revue about it. It was not originally conceived as an "Attractions" album. I wanted to make a songwriter's compendium using any ensemble that the music dictated.
The record would feature songs like, "You Bowed Down" – written for Roger McGuinn and constructed like a bespoke garment – but it might also accommodate, "Punishing Kiss." This was written for Annie Ross to sing in the Robert Altman film Short Cuts and was now arranged for a string quartet with a small jazz ensemble added.
My way of thinking was being influenced by preparations for the 1995 Meltdown Festival at London's South Bank Centre. I had been asked to direct the nine days of musical events in June of that year. The invited artists included Moondog, the Composer's Ensemble, Marc Ribot, The Wooden Indians, June Tabor, Jeff Buckley and Gunther Schuller, conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
I got to work with many of the other guest musicians for the first time, singing something like sixty different songs in five of the concerts. During the last few years on many records have appeared that had their beginnings at this festival.
The McCartney/MacManus composition, "That Day is Done," was reprised on the Fairfield Four's "I didn't hear nobody pray" record. I appeared on Individually Twisted with Deborah Harry and the Jazz Passengers followed by a part in Roy Nathanson's Fire at Keaton's Bar and Grill. I continued to perform in concert with the Brodsky Quartet and we recorded Kurt Weill's "Lost in the Stars" for the September Songs film of his music with Hal Willner. I also sang John Harle's trio of settings from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night for the record Terror and Magnificence and "The Night Before Larry was Stretched" for Dónal Lunny's Common Ground album.
Fretwork would soon record my viol composition "Put Away Forbidden Playthings" with Michael Chance. It was included on the record "Sit Fast," a collection of pieces commissioned earlier in '95 for the Henry Purcell Tercentenary. After my Meltdown set with Bill Frisell was given a limited edition release on Nonesuch, Michael McGlynn arranged and recorded the title song, "Deep Dead Blue" with his choral group, Anúna.
Even though I had played with Steve Nieve for eighteen years, on and off, by this point, we performed our first full-length concert together – with just piano, guitar and voice – at Meltdown. It was almost like living a double life and it was in these circumstances that we began to record All This Useless Beauty.
This all seemed pretty distant as The Attractions and I hit the last chorus of "Complicated Shadows" on stage at the Beacon Theatre, New York City. We had our production team of Geoff Emerick and John Jacobs in the mobile recording truck, as we were performing our new arrangements in public for the first time and we wanted to catch anything worth keeping. Back in April '95, I had taken a similar approach to an opening act slot on four Bob Dylan shows. I wasn't billed and nobody was expecting me, so I only played unreleased tunes, including a very early draft of a song that I had just been asked to write with Burt Bacharach.
It was now August and we were about to enter the studio in Dublin. I had already changed my mind about the contents of the record several times. I know that "God Give Me Strength" was among the titles that I recorded with the Attractions but no decent mix of it has come to light.
The heart of the record was certainly in the ballads. We played each of them at the slowest, most expressive tempo possible. For "Little Atoms" and "Distorted Angel," we constructed a rhythm loop to make the songs float a little above the beat. I believe that the elegant and restrained band performance of "Poor Fractured Atlas" is one of the very best Attractions recordings.
Arrangements were stripped down and more a more emphasis placed on the voice and the piano. This didn't exactly help the feeling of group unity. From time to time there was a great burst of energy and we'd capture something like the berserk arrangement for "Almost Ideal Eyes." But when the studio takes of "Complicated Shadows" failed to completely capture the mood of the song, we edited into the live performance from the Beacon Theatre. As a fine singer once remarked: "…and now the end is near."
Then again, I didn't want to pretend that I was still twenty-two. These words had a different point of view than those I'd written in the late 70's. There were songs about vanity and the deluded manners of men – "Poor Fractured Atlas," "Why can't a man stand alone?" and the song, "All this Useless Beauty," There were songs about betraying your principles, letting yourself down and being diminished – "Little Atoms," "You Bowed Down" and "Starting to Come to Me." None of these lyrics contained any anger toward the characters, only disappointment that they had settled for so little. I could just as easily have been talking to myself.
The songs, "All this Useless Beauty" and "I want to vanish," were both originally written for that great voice from English folk music, June Tabor. While the first song was actually delivered with more anger than on my version, June found all the black humour in "I want to vanish." Perhaps I reserved the more private meaning of the song for myself. The bleaker implication of the text was not something I'd expect anyone else to relish. The line, "I'm as certain as a lost dog pondering a signpost," pretty much states my frame of mind at the time of this recording.
There were songs of a lighter humour. "Distorted Angel" was about almost discovering Catholic guilt at a birthday party when you are eight years old. In a strange way, "It's Time" was the sequel to "Tramp the dirt down." This is indicated by an absurd line in the last verse: "…but if you do have to leave me. Who will I have left to hate?
As I read what I have described, it seems to have been a time that was incredibly serious and rather wretched. I should perhaps point out that while I was arguing with myself in this quietly demented fashion, I was also drinking very large quantities of alcohol. That'll work for you every time if you really want to remain miserable.
By the time we took an autumnal break, so Geoff Emerick could go off to work on Paul McCartney's latest record, I was ready to scrap the entire record. There had been no great enthusiasm for the scope and length of disc from W.B. and I felt that some of the songs had been played through gritted teeth by at least one member of the band. I had to think again.
During the time away from the album I recorded "My Dark Life" with Brian Eno for the album Songs in the Key of X. The session lasted for a straight fourteen hours but the outcome was one of my very favourite tracks. I really admired Brian's ruthless and creative use of the erase button.
So began an even more drastic editing process. I cut two numbers from the proposed album completely and started to re-work the order, placing the ballads at the front and centre. I had already almost entirely re-written the lyric of "The Other End of the Telescope," lying on the floor of studio while the band sat impatiently in the control room. This song was co-written with Aimee Mann and it seemed to suit her entirely. The tune, which was Aimee's , was very lovely but I felt that the text needed to be more accusative before I could really make it my own. Now it would open the album.
Steve Nieve and I collaborated on a new arrangement of "I want to vanish," in which his piano was joined by the Brodsky Quartet and two clarinets. The new version would close the record.
Any further credit for the fact that this album was ever finished must go to Geoff Emerick and Jon Jacobs who focused the sound on all the strengths and flattered the weaknesses in the playing. They mixed the record splendidly.
This record exists in the distance between an ideal and the reality. I've read that it is simply a collection of songs that I wrote for other singers – usually with the implication that this was a bad or inferior thing. True, I had the voice of certain singers in mind when many of these songs were composed. However, compared to the original blueprint, the final album contains only four previously recorded songs.
If it was in any way an exercise, then it was one in creeping up on yourself, in order to trick out a song that would have otherwise remained elusive. It was the idealised version of a performer that caused me to compose. The content of the songs – the words and the actual music were of my imagining and I had always intended to sing the songs myself at some stage.
The fan or admirer in many of us may imagine a different creative history for our favourite singers, actors and artists. What if Elvis Presley had lived to record "Brilliant Disguise" by Bruce Springsteen or Picasso had painted the Forth Bridge or Wynona Ryder had taken the part of the daughter in Godfather III? Or perhaps all these things are better the way they are.
In the end it doesn't really matter that Johnny Cash never recorded "Complicated Shadows" or that Sam Moore couldn't see himself singing "Why can't a man stand alone?" It was enough to be thinking of them that I managed to write these songs and for that, I will always be grateful.
This is the first of my albums to be named after a song actually included on the disc. The title All this Useless Beauty was used in sarcastic acknowledgement of the likely fate of this record. I was not being entirely serious. Amelia Stein's cover photo is of a lovely but tarnished mannequin. I recently heard that it had perished in a house fire. I cannot say that I found this news very surprising.
A number of additional songs, mentioned in these notes, have been included on this release. "Almost Ideal Eyes" is an out-take that should probably have remained part of the album – if only for the bizarre guitar playing in the fade. This is followed by "My Dark Life" and the version of "That Day is Done" recorded in Nashville with the Fairfield Four.
"What do I do now?" is a solo recording of a song by Louise Wener, made in response to her group Sleeper's participation in the "Four singles in one month" series (see "The other footnote").
The final song in this sequence is the last track that I recorded for W.B. After the release of this album it seemed time to leave the label. I negotiated my departure, despite being contracted for one more album. The agreement called for a compilation of my W.B. recordings. Extreme Honey escaped Burbank accompanied by a global promotional budget of an entire $1,000 dollars. This is about as close as a major record company can legally get to putting a horse's head in your bed. The sole virtue of the release was that it called for the making of a new track, "The Bridge I Burned." This was recorded with a group of musicians and technicians twenty years my junior, including my son Mat, who played bass on the track. The record originally included a four line quote from the Prince song "Pop Life." Permission has once again been refused for the inclusion of this take. Instead, those bars contain someone shouting through a megaphone. As song says, there is "a mocking bird in the twilight of infamy."
The other footnote
If I had wanted to simply make this an album of songs written for other artists, I might have included a number of the titles that you may now find on the second CD. Among these are a studio demo of "The Comedians," as it was re-written for Roy Orbison and a re-working of "Only Flame in Town," made with view to sending it to Aaron Neville. There is also the demo recording of "Why can't a man stand alone?" which is in, what I imagined might be, Sam Moore's key and the version of "You Bowed Down" made for Roger McGuinn. "Hidden Shame" is one of the two songs of mine that Johnny Cash DID record while the demo of "Complicated Shadows" is in the arrangement that he rejected.
"The World's Great Optimist" is my very first draft of a song co-written with Aimee Mann that has only recently been officially released on her album "Bachelor No 2." The previously unreleased, "The Days take care of everything" was also intended for Roy Orbison and yielded some of the lyrics that went into my re-written version of "The Other End of the Telescope."
Among the 4-track cassette home demos are my only recording of the McCartney/MacManus composition, "Mistress and Maid," the original ballad version of "It's time" and an up-tempo take on "Distorted Angel." If they sound a little distorted – that is because they are.
When the commercial response to the album was less than thrilling, I attempted turn these circumstances into something more entertaining. Four singles from the record were released in one month, creating a weekly bulletin board about the album. The elegant sepia toned cover image was brutally "colourized" and new versions of the material were recorded by a group of invited artists. By far the most interesting of these was Tricky's re-mix of "Distorted Angel" which closes the second.
— Elvis Costello