The phrase ‘life-changing’ is an overused one, but it’s a horribly appropriate one for what happened to Edwyn Collins in 2005. Aged only 45, the former singer of ’80s indie pop heroes Orange Juice suffered two cerebral hemorrhages, leaving him with a condition known as aphasia, and unable to read, write, use the right side of his body or speak anything other than a couple of stock phrases.
Being able to live a reasonably normal life after all that would be a laudable enough aim, but five years later, Collins released Losing Sleep, his seventh solo album. It was a work understandably overshadowed by the back-story of his recovery, but stood perfectly well on its own merits too – a warm, witty and, yes, life-affirming record.
Understated repeats the trick wonderfully, but in an even better way. Aided by a couple of extra years’ therapy, Collins’ voice is more at ease with the high notes now and the band he’s assembled (including former Sex Pistols man Paul Cook on drums) breeze through this mostly upbeat collection of pop-soul stompers. There may be no special guests like Johnny Marr, Alex Kapranos or Ryan Jarman this time, but that means that the spotlight is deservedly refocused entirely on the man himself. While there may be no sure-fire hit to replicate the success of A Girl Like You, there’s a steady stream of consistency which gives the album a lovely flow.
Dilemma makes for a fine opener, a squeal of guitar feedback giving way to a horn-led Northern Soul pastiche that gladdens the heart just on hearing it. It’s a sound replicated on several tracks on Understated, most successfully on the gloriously uplifting Carry On Carry On (which contains probably the album’s key line “what the heck, I’m living now”) and the title track. And Collins can also bring down the tempo equally successfully, as on the languid country stroll of Down The Line or the soulful ballad of It’s A Reason.
It’s impossible to listen to any Edwyn Collins song of recent years without hearing some reference to the difficulties he’s gone through. Understated is no exception, with nearly every track nodding towards the kind of new mindset that can only be brought on after extraordinary circumstances. 31 Years sees a chorus of “I feel alive, it’s good to feel”, and Forsooth has the eye-damping declaration that “I feel alive and I feel reborn”.
There’s also a beautifully stripped down cover version of the Rod McKuen standard Love’s Been Good To Me (tackled by, amongst others Frank Sinatra and Johnny Cash), which feels oddly valedictory, placed as it is at the end of the record. It’s odd because if there’s one message which Understated declares proudly, it’s that Collins isn’t done yet. A big, gorgeous old hug of an album.