It’s fair to say the much hyped 1998 UNKLE debut Psyence Fiction failed to live up to the pressure placed upon it by the music media. James Lavelle, the driving force behind UNKLE, had already enjoyed a meteoric rise with his own Mo’ Wax label, and greatness surely beckoned with the now departed DJ Shadow becoming the other half of the UNKLE partnership.
The resulting record was a sprawling collection of tracks that didn’t hang together and provided a vehicle for its guest stars Richard Ashcroft and Thom Yorke rather than showcasing Lavelle’s considerable talents.
Never, Never Land is quite different, as if Lavelle has taken on board all these relative misgivings. At just over an hour it’s still too long, but herein lays a much more coherent album. There’s a much more intelligent use of guest vocalists as well, none more so than Queens Of The Stone Age vocalist Josh Homme. His ‘someone’s found a way’ vocal on Safe In Mind is given a powerful backing, almost like Audioslave in a breakbeat club
While we’re on the guest turns, Joel Cadbury of South turns in a restrained, plaintive performance on Glow, with subtle strings and a barely perceptible, pulsing rhythm behind – a very affecting moment. This contrasts nicely with the opening tones of the single Eye For An Eye, defiance ringing clear in the ears with the samples from Ball Of Confusion and a tough, moody beat.
Although Thom Yorke doesn’t appear on this album his presence hovers over In A State, a cousin of Street Spirit but given a piano part that’s closer to Tubular Bells. If that sounds terrible it isn’t, with some nice touches on the string parts at the end and a driving bass from Mani. It should also be pointed out that Lavelle’s full time vocalist and acoustic guitarist Richard File makes an excellent contribution to this album, vocally involved and subtly effective in his fingerwork.
This, then, would appear to be the album that we were willing James Lavelle and his collaborators to make back in 1998. Despite his obvious talents it seems that losing DJ Shadow has actually given this project the shot in the arm that it clearly needed, and it has enabled Lavelle, File and Ant Genn to make a highly accomplished record.