He’s back. One of the founding fathers of psychedelia has been lured from his South of France retreat after a break of 15 years with a surprisingly great album. Surprising because critics have condemned Kevin Ayers’ last few attempts as nothing but a pretty coffee coaster. It’s all changed now.
The Unfairground is a short and sweet collection of ten tunes, rich with strings, original ideas, lovely melodies and a whiff of what used to be.Some of Ayers’ biggest fans, and some of today’s most notable musicians, have joined him on the album, recorded in Arizona, New York, London and Glasgow, as well as some of his old mates. Euros Childs, Candie Payne, members of Teenage Fanclub, Phil Manzanera, Robbie McIntosh and Joe McGinty, among others, packed the recording studios to help bring this latest release to life.
Although their individual talents do not stand out – there are no duets apart from the superb Baby Come Home with the beautiful voice of Bridget St John – their presence is felt. The aforementioned Baby Come Home has a Gorky’s ring to it and the sugar sweet backing vocals on almost every song warm the album like a microwaved dressing gown, helped by the Abbey Road production.
Opening track Only Heaven Knows, with its Mexican brass and skiffle beat, seemed too simple and plodding on first listen, but in context with the rest of the album, it’s a great introduction – warm, cheery, but about as psychedelic as my Nan. On a second listen, you realise this album is not about treading in those old footsteps song after song. It’s about bringing new and old talent together to make a really lovely sound. But the past does rear its head on a few occasions, like with the sampled vocals of former Soft Machine band mate Robert Wyatt.
Ayers’ voice is smooth and a little monotone, but with the ruggedness of experience. It sits contrastingly above the wonderfully arranged strings and brass, gloopy like a syrupy sea. It’s still quite a minimalist album – no effects getting in the way of its simplicity – which shows off the talents of the collaborators.
Friends and Strangers, with the strings of Odyssey and Oracle and the concept of Forever Changes, is one of the gems, its sliding guitar and percussion the only accompaniment for Ayres during the versus, joined with a distant harmony and pretty choral for the rest. Wide Awake, following on from the blues of Shine a Light, has more of a 60′s pop feel to it, again due to the backing chorus. Tinges of a Soft Machine past appear again in Brainstorm with its cascading piano and dreamlike verse.
Closing Run Run Run sums up The Unfairground. It’s a homage to past and present, relaxed, understated and all about the simplicity of words and music.
The only criticism is that Ayers’ vocals stand out a little too much on some of the tracks, while some additions are lost in the background, but it’s a small fault and one easily overlooked.