If you are already a Cardiacs fan there is probably no point in reading a review about this album. You will already know that it is not just the band’s crowning glory, but that Sing To God is quite possibly one of the greatest albums ever made.
If you’re already bitten by the Cardiacs bug, it is almost impossible to be objective about their music. As soon as Tim Smith’s magical musical creations infect the consciousness it is hard to hear other bands in quite the same way ever again; everything else seems so beige and uninteresting.
If however you’re a newcomer to the pond, then a whole new world is about to open up in front of you. Sing To God is finally getting a re-issue and will be available on vinyl for the first time. It is the latest in a series of re-issues of albums that have long been unavailable, except to those with exceedingly deep pockets on eBay. That the work of Cardiacs is once again available is worthy of celebration. It has been something of a travesty that it has not been for such a long time, but recently most of their back catalogue has seen the light of day once again (including the quite extraordinary Tim Smith’s Extra Special Oceanland World which is surely also due considerable reappraisal). That Cardiacs have only recently been afforded the critical credit they deserve is also something of an annoyance to those who have been with the band for some time. That they were on the cusp of becoming appreciated on their own terms when Tim Smith became a poorly chap is a bitter pill to swallow, but finally their music is getting the respect it deserves.
Sing To God was the first album to feature what many consider to be the Cardiacs MkII line up. The “original” group had fallen apart after On Land And In The Sea with Tim Quy (percussion), William D Drake (piano/keyboards), Sarah Smith (sax) and Bic Hayes (guitar) all leaving the Cardiacs world – although Bill Drake once told me at the Astoria residency some years later: “You never really leave.”
Drummer Dominic Luckman remained in place for the somewhat under-appreciated Heaven Born And Ever Bright which saw the band stripped back to a four-piece (Jon Poole taking Bic Hayes place on guitar during the sessions) and deviate in a more direct, heavier direction. Smith’s songwriting was just as strong as ever (the B-Sides to the Day Is Gone single from that period are simply majestic) but it was an album that felt a little underwhelming when compared to what had come before. When Luckman left the fold he was replaced by Bob “Babba” Leith and Cardiacs would find their second “classic” line up. Whilst still a four-piece, their next album would utilise the studio to flesh out the band’s sound, and as a result, Sing To God is no stripped back affair but an all singing, all dancing amalgam of sound, mood, and skewed genius. If Heaven Born felt hampered by the changes forced upon the band, then Sing To God embraced those changes and constituted a phenomenal response that blew a long raspberry in the face of circumstance and aimed for greater, more expansive things.
It is an incorrect received wisdom that double-albums are fundamentally flawed. Prior to Sing To God, it’s an argument that may have held some water, but over the course of two discs (or four sides of vinyl) there is not an ounce of fat or mindless folly. This is an album of unmitigated genius from start to finish. Musically, it is an incredibly diverse and tangled affair that even years after its release still yields new things to discover. It opens with a gently tinkling wind chime and then a short passage that sounds like the twinkling of the stars that grace the cover of the album. For a moment it toys with the idea of becoming a hymn, and then Eat It Up Worms Hero comes crashing in. A riotous explosion of thrash riffing, crazed keyboard runs and childlike vocals it veers from moments of serenity to all out chaos with no warning whatsoever.
From there the band move into pop mode and marry a tale of everyday pet disablement to a wonky oompah knees up for Dog Like Sparky. Three songs in, and already there’s been enough ideas thrown into the mix to fill most bands entire careers. Fiery Gun Hand keeps the pace up and then floors the accelerator. In anybody else’s hands it’s a song that could be described as metal or punk, but there are so many flourishes, so many deviations and any number of ridiculous fuck yous to convention that it can’t be labelled. Which is of course exactly how it should be.
It’s not all out aggression though, and there are examples of Smith’s keen pop nous to be found everywhere. In terms of whole songs, there’s Bellyeye, (which got a release as a single on the ORG label) and Manhoo, both of which illustrate the debt that Blur owe to the band. Both specialise in huge earworm choruses that simply cannot be forgotten once heard. Manhoo in particular has a skip in its step and a rumbling and forceful bassline that somehow couldn’t be poppier if it was covered in glitter.
Gentler moments can be found in the quaint and curious depths of Wireless, a song that features snipping scissors as percussion, and ends with a quite beautiful orchestra coda that shows just how talented Smith is as a composer. Billion’s nursery rhyme suspended in space atmospherics add a sense of playfulness and curious beauty, whilst the discussion about dead rodents that is Quiet As A Mouse is just plain strange and adds to the mysterious nature of the band.
If there is a stand out moment, then it comes in the shape of Dirty Boy, a nine-minute epic that, when performed live, is capable of making even the sturdiest weep. A curious mix of classical, rock and hymn this is Cardiacs giving praise to…well, something, or someone, it’s never entirely clear. Smith’s songwriting here is impeccable. Almost imperceptible shifts in chord patterns push the song towards rapture as it progresses, so that as it reaches the half way point there’s already a sense of epiphany. Yet somehow, it continues to build and grow, striving for something more and finding it. Dirty Boy is not just singing to god; it feels like finding god.
Yet this is not a religious album despite what its title might suggest. Certainly there are religious references. Jesus makes an appearance on Fiery Gun Hand and Odd Even, the Holy Bible gets a mention (but rare is the sermon or court case that involves screaming “wank” when the good book is involved), and Mary Magdelene gets her arms chewed off during Fairy Mary Mag. Just as prevalent however is the mention of dogs. There’s Sparky, Lassie (the quite freakish Insect Hooves On Lassie) who are both named, but there are canine references in Fairy Mary Mag, Wireless and Dirty Boy. An alternative title for the album could easily be Sing To Dog.
It’s not just dogs that feature, but horses, birds, worms and fish are all mentioned. Some are found in strange forms, Sparky has no legs, Lassie has been customised to feature insect hooves, and fish have red fire coming out of their gills. Quite what’s happening with the worms is anyone’s guess. Themes are hard to pick out, not least because Smith’s lyrics are so wonderfully ambiguous. Not only is he a gifted musician and composer, but some of his written work could easily be classed as poetry (with Milligan and Carroll as obvious influences). The band’s music might well twist and turn, but often overlooked are the labyrinths of the words that populate them. There are themes here, or hints of them at least.
If you were to take a guess at what Smith was suggesting with this album it would simply be that the world is a magical, wondrous place, and that it is still possible to see it through a child’s eyes. To that end, any religious themes that can be detected are swamped in childlike word play or muted understanding. Creation is covered in the beautifully grotesque Insect Hooves On Lassie, which finds Tim indulging in a little re-designing and making his own kind of hero dog. Death is mentioned in Quiet As A Mouse but so too is the idea of resurrection. Indeed, the band indulge in a little resurrection too. They look back to their earliest days and the Toy World cassette and resurrect an old tune in the shape of Nurses Whispering Verses, giving it a more ferocious edge.
It would be possible to write about Sing To God and the sheer brilliance of Cardiacs for ever, but the truth is, words will never be able to describe just how incredible the band and this album is. The only way to find out is to hear it, and once you do, things will never be quite the same again. This really is an album worthy of laudation.
Cardiacs’ Sing To God is released on double gatefold heavy vinyl through Alphabet Business Concern on 14 July 2014. More on Cardiacs can be found here.