Graham Coxon’s seventh solo album is a pleasant surprise. A mainly acoustic work, The Spinning Top is not exactly a departure as he dabbled in folk in his early solo side-projects when still a member of Blur, but this is his first fully fledged folk album.
Having said that, the 15 songs are as much reminiscent of the Nick Drake singer-songwriter style as Bert Jansch rootsiness, and there are a few explosive electric bursts more representative of Coxon’s output.
Very different from his recent albums such as Happiness In Magazines and Love Travels At Illegal Speeds, this will probably not appeal to the laddish Britpop fans who followed him over from Blur, just as Libertines/Babyshambles rockers did not take to Pete Doherty‘s first solo venture Grace/Wastelands, on which Coxon had a big input, playing guitar on all but one track. Likewise, The Spinning Top will no doubt be more of a critical than a commercial success.
A sort of concept album, with its title suggesting the transience of life, it follows one man’s life from birth to death, though as there is not a through narrative each song stands on its own. Once again produced by Stephen Street, Coxon has created a work full of guileless charm with a deceptive simplicity that masks some intricate musicianship, while its English pastoral ambience is interleaved with some more exotic influences.
Opening track Look Into The Light captures the exciting moment of emerging from the darkness of the womb into the brightness of the outside world, but This House where “nothing keeps you warm… the writing’s on the wall” shows growing up is not always a homely experience.
The eight-minute-plus In The Morning is the longest and most varied track, beginning a bit like Paul McCartney‘s Blackbird, complete with birdsong, then surprisingly taking on an Indian flavour with wailing vocals and tabla-style percussion – which of course the Beatles also engaged in. If You Want Me starts quietly and gently before distorted fuzz guitar turns it into a late Blur song, so that the chorus “If you want me/Come and get me” changes from a gesture of support into a provocative challenge.
Perfect Love describes first love but its blissful harmony is in danger of lapsing into pedestrian blandness until picking up speed with a chirpy saxophone accompaniment, and Brave The Storm continues the romantic mood with some nice woodwind arrangements. Dead Bees, though, carries a real sting with its wah-wah guitar as death rears its ugly head for the first time.
Lead single Sorrow’s Army is a catchy number owing a lot to Delta country blues but the strangely uneven Caspian Sea is an unsatisfactory affair, with Coxon’s anodyne singing and chugging guitar alternating with crashing cymbals and echoing female backing vocals. The nostalgic Home – “it’s so hard to be away” – is followed by the half-heartedly electric Humble Man.
Whilst Feel Alright evokes loneliness, the hauntingly beautiful Far From Everything – “Take me by the hand/Take me to your land” – revels in otherness. Tripping Over is suffused with hints of Syd Barrett psychedelia, and the album finishes strongly with the concertina-led November, backed with choral singing, providing movingly wintry intimations of mortality.
If anyone doubted it before, Coxon proves here his mastery of guitar technique with some dextrous playing – finger pickin’ good – while his agreeable if limited voice suggests a touching, even tremulous vulnerability. He is backed by a variety of collaborators performing some unusual instruments, including – I think – glockenspiel and didgeridoo. Though shot through with a minor-key dreamy melancholy, he seems relatively at peace with himself with no sign of punky angst.
It’s interesting to compare the solo career of this English maverick with the more eclectic and experimental sonic development of Damon Albarn. The innocent charm of The Spinning Top is certainly a world away from Albarn’s clever postmodern fusions. We will see if the chemistry between these two contrasting musicians is still there when Blur reunite this summer.