As part of my podcast series ‘Exploded Drawing’ — which is about music from the 90s — I recently sat down with great relish to discuss Mansun’s second album Six with Transgressive Records co-founder Tim Dellow.
Admittedly, the exercise of picking a particular era of music as a starting point naturally tends to nostalgia: it’s an occupational hazard, since in delving into a formative period, one whose resonance is necessarily a source of affection and affirmation, you’re pointing yourself squarely at your own past. Put two musicians together to ponder such things for an hour or two, and what you’re left with is the urge to reach into the magic and exaltation of music as an idea, as a transformative rite-of-passage. Of course, when it comes to albums, there is always at least the primary source material of the music itself to inspect, regardless of its emotional weight, those ghostly tracings on the soul that are pure subjectivity. If in doubt, one can always return to the notes, to their order, to their mathematical progress through time and sequence.
In the case of Six though, I had a feeling that an hour’s worth of conversation wasn’t going to quite do justice to the many thoughts and lives I’d felt the music mean for me across the intervening years. While Tim and I discussed the ambitious folly of this odd album’s creation and reception, delving into the minutiae of its sonic detail, I had a growing sense of an ineffable mystery still eluding us. Given that it’s a record whose artwork we both have issues with, whose production choices at times sound flawed and patchy, and whose very charms still seem up for debate, I wondered what it is about Six that continues to ensnare and root the two of us to such affection, to an entrenched positivity about its impact on us. Is it really just the sound of a memory, the nostalgia of a moment engrained in our minds, into our perception of what made us? Maybe we’re blind to its faults, Stockholm Syndromed into believing it formative and valuable.
As a musician involved in one or two records myself I neither think it’s entirely a trap or a red herring, but I’m aware at least of the gap between the romantic notion of a piece of music and the intentions of its composers and players, that mythical ‘magic’ of music-making. As both composers and consumers we’re complicit in the magic, and unashamedly so. While I’ve experienced the occasional disappointment of seeing a carefully-assembled bass part shorn and shoehorned into something that works in a collaborative context, I’m still bewildered and transfixed by the sheer accident of beauty that can come when a bandmate reaches for an unexpected note while I plunge towards another. In that split second of harmonic happenstance something that is of neither of us yet inexplicably of both is born in the air: a self-creating zygote, a spontaneous Higgs-Boson that confers mass to an abstraction. The pursuit of that moment is what fires us as musicians, and I can think of numerous occurrences of it down the years. Take, for example, the section about two minutes into ‘Compliments’, the final track on Silent Alarm, in which Russell conjured from somewhere a waterfall of harmony against my F sharp bass note: its recording was a moment that lives so large in my memory that I can still see producer Paul Epworth, bent over Russell’s pedalboard with headphones clamped around his ever-present khaki-green cap, lifting his head to me with a tear in his eye, visibly moved.
Those moments do happen in the studio, in-between the interminable passages of boredom, long stretches filled only with the sound of a kick drum echoing repeatedly while people fuss by in a slow motion of knob-twiddling and endless cups of tea. As a player, if you can let go of the essentially subjective experience that lives between the inception of a part and its committal to tape, you can be released into a kind of divination, a journey that you are not piloting, but rather following — and it is here where wonder and magic live. For musicians, this is what we consciously and unconsciously reach for, in an attempt to re-live the countless feelings awakened in us by other songs and records. Making music is a belief in, but at the same time a denial of, the ability to achieve that moment again and again, and then again, and just maybe one more time after that. While I recognise the futility of describing what that pursuit entails, I’ve not yet ceased hearing and experiencing it in music both old and new, and that’s what ‘Exploded Drawing’ is about. As musicians, we make listening and discovering a part of the ongoing experience of who we are: we listen forwards and backwards; sideways, upwards and downwards.
And so I return to Mansun’s Six. The truth is I was 21 years old when that record came out, stood right at the crossroads of the desire to consume music and make it. The magic seemed to be intersecting into me and yet off at a distance, intangible. It always is. In any group of musicians approaching a record, there’s the spoken and there’s the unspoken about what’s going on, and it’s the unspoken that people like Tim and me try to run a fine-tooth comb over, irrespective of the time and experience that’s come and gone since the first listen. In those opening seconds of Six — as fingers check quickly at the open strings of a bass and a hi-hat roll denotes the sound of a drummer limbering up — the possibilities that live in a moment, the split second after an engineer has set the tape rolling, are tiny, but infinite. In those sounds, I can hear the enormity of possibility but I hear also the grip of a closed, paralysing inconsequence. When our fingers and vocal chords tense for that first hit of a song, are we about to do everything, or just nothing? The reality, in that moment of now and all the moments of then it becomes henceforth, is akin to the idea of Shrödinger’s Cat: nothing and everything simultaneously.
I suspect that Six was born of as much paralysis and ennui as it was hope and possibility, and I hear it all. The intention is the act is the document, if you will. Like all great collaborations, there is arrogance in its innocence, and vice versa. That ringing line from the first song often comes back to me: “life is a series of compromises.” Whether Six was trying to invoke Prince’s Parade or The Beatles’ Abbey Road, whether it was looking to its contemporaries Blur, Supergrass or Radiohead: whatever its intentions, it wasn’t afraid to be all of those things but fall utterly short of them too. Like a playing card threaded into the spokes of a bicycle, it dreamed of clattering through a hundred ideas at a time, both musical and philosophical: and yet in the same breath, it seemed ready to write itself off as all too sarcastic and arch. It’s a record that was prepared to disavow itself by beating everyone else to its own criticism; and as overwrought as all these pronouncements might sound, I also know that it was just as much an accidental bumping-together of things that happened in absent moments in bedrooms, rehearsal rooms and studios, like all albums are. At some point its players simply closed their eyes and tried not to think about exactly what it was they were supposed to be doing.
I submit to a nostalgic attachment to Six nevertheless — for a while, it became the soundtrack to a period of realisation, of self-realisation, of curiosity and misgiving about the world around me. In its irony and self-doubt, in its caustic debunking of contemporary mores — its sheer me-against-the-world snottiness — Six undoubtedly personifies a chapter of my life in musical form. Paul Draper, its chief (but not only) lyricist, summed up the banality and discombobulation of late 90s culture through some of the most poignant lyrics of the time: in ‘Serotonin’, against a squall of metallic drumming and paranoid guitar, he suggests that “I can change the amount of God that wraps around me” — while elsewhere it’s Dominic Chad’s line “everybody helps me make my own mistakes” that seems to pierce the heart most drastically. It’s a record that you lived, that lived in you. Its occasionally ridiculous flips — from punk-rock into dreamy ambience, vaudeville into operetta, plaintive piano into ‘The Sugar Plum Fairy’ — are all so awkward that those of us of an awkward heart were bound to be drawn in and defined by it.
The magic here comes somewhere between the art and the artifice. It’s the human heart beating underneath Six that comes through, and nostalgia or no, you can trace that through the music itself. The title track sets out a precedent, its guitar chords building, changing direction and finally settling down, as if emerging assuredly out of psychosis. Then comes the choppy swing of ‘Negative’, its own insecurity pinned together by a belligerent vocal hook. ‘Shotgun’ skitters past in quick-fire guitar parts, eventually blooming into an expanse of intersecting melodies, and by the time the desolate piano of ‘Inverse Midas’ comes into view, there’s little to contest about the album’s power, its adventurousness and self-reflection, the humour in it, let alone its bombastic overreach. Nobody could accuse Mansun of complacency, lack of ambition, or reticence. Here is a band pumping on all cylinders, thrashing every idea out of itself to the point of dysfunction, and there’s still another forty minutes of it to come. The record goes on to wind its way through the atmospheric vistas of ‘Cancer’ and the schizophrenic flip-flop of ‘Special/Blown It (Delete As Appropriate)’; it then relaxes, the lapping waves of a beach breaking audibly over the beginning of ‘Legacy,’ before lurching into a last gasp of hip-jerking defiance in the shape of ‘Being A Girl,’ whose rumbling final section seems hesitant to the last, on the brink of collapse, determined to hold on to the record’s dying gasps of melody.
As to its many interlocking philosophies, its context, the idea of what a record label and a buying public might have made of all this in 1998, I’ll leave you to listen to the podcast to discover a little more about that. I still can’t quite put my finger on what it is that’s so enduring about this record when at the same time it seems such a mish-mash of assembled, unconnected non-sequiturs. But maybe that’s the point. I know that Draper, Chad, Rathbone and King weren’t holding out their instruments over some mystical ley line, channelling spirits from the air into the recording console; but in a way they were, because music is magic. Music — its happenstance and serendipity, its fusing of synapses in the emotional cortex, the way it becomes our memories and our experience — is where the magic of the human condition lives. Music is sticking a finger up to the abyss. It’s staring into the darkness, a whistled melody on our lips.
And so it is that Six lives on, much like every document or record of the past — gone, but not. Its last bars fall to silence, until we’re ready to play it again, to re-live it. One more time.
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