The aptly titled As I Was Saying fills in many of the gaps in those years, in that it really does seem to pick up where he left off – but with the bonus of experience to add richness and context to many of the themes.
These are the songs that John Howard had to get out of his system – songs waiting their turn during the years when he wasn’t writing. Many are very personal – particularly the extraordinarily touching These Fifty Years, one of many standout tracks. Others are simply delightful, with the lightness of touch in the witty lyrics that we have come to expect from this superlative singer-songwriter.
Oh, Do Give It A Rest, Love is a tour-de-force, a seven minute epic of wit and bitchiness that manages to include pretty well the entire history of pop music: “…Where the clones of Billy Fury were singing Pet Shop Boys requests / and The Quarrymen were fighting at the disco / with the hippies who had left their heart in Frisco / screaming, pleading, begging / Oh do give it a rest, love…” By about the tenth listening you realise you still haven’t got all the jokes. “And Lulu, Marc and Ziggy rented half the world / while Marianne and Mick tried out a chocolate whirl / for David Hemmings who was blowing up his tyres for David Bailey’s driving test…” Priceless.
Alongside the fun and frivolity there are nostalgic, wistful and sad songs – “You got a kind of aching it lies like a lake in your eyes / and it never dries / it just goes deeper with every tear you cry…” All tell stories: not for John Howard the barren, commonplace lyrics that now pass muster elsewhere.
Some even manage to mix the fun and the wistfulness – best demonstrated in Life Is Never The Way You Want It To Be: “If I could just remember / how I saw my own reflection / in her eyes as she smiled wondrously at me / maybe I’d never have been lonely / and maybe I’d never have felt low / or maybe I’d still have been the egocentric eccentric half crazy selfish son of a bitch that made my mother cry…”. Nick Cave eat your heart out – you’re not the only one that makes a fine art out of cramming too many words in a line…
And then there’s Time Of Day, about which I can say nothing other than that it makes me cry, every single time I hear it.
This album has everything. Not only are there great songs – there isn’t a single dud, just some that take more listening than others – the sound is the best of all his recordings. Just listen to the “full-on” version of Dear Glitterheart, previously a piano-based song on The Dangerous Hours. Conjures up fantasies of John Howard supporting Scissor Sisters, doesn’t it? (Stranger things have happened, and some of these ballads are every bit as good as Mary.)
There’s an expansive fullness, greatly helped by Andre Barreau (Bootleg Beatles) doubling on guitar and percussion and Phil King on bass. John Howard’s excellent piano and keyboards underpins all and is often marvelously quirky, subtle and inventive, reminiscent of Neil Hannon in his Promenade days. The voice is also in peak condition – richer than in his youth but retaining all the character, and sounding more and more like a slightly posher John Lennon.
Thank goodness providence, Divine or otherwise, has given John Howard back to us, and that he promises it won’t be another 30 years before the next new material. In the meantime, buy this album and enjoy.