Hard to believe it’s 14 years since Hugh Cornwell left The Stranglers, a move still not satisfactorily explained. He certainly can’t be accused of being idle since, though – Beyond Elysian Fields is his ninth solo album. And what a delight it is.
Conceived as “an album like John Wesley Harding” there is no doubt that the overall sound owes a lot to Dylan, though of course Cornwell has the advantage of a voice. The addition of unpretentious and irresistibly catchy acoustic backing tracks and the services of Tony Visconti (possibly the greatest David Bowie producer, and responsible for Stranglers classics Golden Brown and Strange Little Girl) result in something like a cross between Dylan and Dire Straits at their best. Oh, with a dash of The Travelling Wilburys for good measure.
Most Dylan-esque are The Story Of Harry Power, a rambling narrative about Ned Kelly (Harry Power being the chap who led him astray), and 24/7, Cornwell’s homage to Dylan. “Even the Beatles took note at the words that he wrote like a spider / 24/7 it’s got to be the greatest job / 24/7 just being Bob.” The rhythms, intonation (and even the accent) consciously reflect his hero but it’s a completely unschmaltzy tribute – “So Bob don’t get me wrong I’m a fan but I can stay cool”… Indeed.
There’s a clutch of witty songs about love, again skillfully avoiding slush, even with titles like Land Of A Thousand Kisses. This, the opening track, sets the tone well with its open, accessible sound, the guitars, percussion and piano of the backing never being allowed to distract from the clarity of Cornwell’s warm voice. Cadiz is another charmer, with a laid-back reflective style and some subtle castanets and strings adding atmosphere.
Do Right Bayou – to be released as the first single – is my instant favourite, a song that would fit in perfectly as a Dylan contribution to the Travelling Wilburys. Simple guitar and organ backing and a rhythm that just makes you want to get up and dance like a mad thing, plus tongue-in-cheek lyrics. Not sure I understand them but it really doesn’t matter.
Under Her Spell is the first track that offers a reminder of The Stranglers with its colder, echo-laden sound and basic phrase repetition; Beauty On The Beach shares these characteristics to a lesser degree and adds some perky flutes.
There’s another terrific upbeat track in the jazz/swing I Don’t Mind – Cornwell is loving every minute of it and demonstrating the versatility of both voice and song-writing.
The album closes with the delightfully strange Henry Moore: “…I could fall asleep like a sheep with my head between your pillows by the door / gazing at my Henry Moore…” I thought it was only Neil Hannon that wrote choruses along these lines – “He’s an acquired taste / But nothing goes to waste / The trouble is there’s not a lot around / And in this situation / What with some high inflation / His value stands up well against the pound.” The melody is idyllic, the overlaid glockenspiel perfect and Cornwell’s voice at its creamiest.
If you preferred the early Stranglers you’ll probably hate this album. Everyone else should buy it immediately and prepare to wallow in pleasure.