Of all the musical efforts to be released in 2012, a solo album from Martin Rossiter is one of the least expected. Rossiter is best known as frontman of the grandiose band Gene which enjoyed a few years of success in the Britpop boom of the late ’90s, peaking in 1997 with three Top 40 hits and a sold-out show at the Royal Albert Hall.
The band disbanded, however, to mass indifference in 2004, their final studio album Libertine having limped into the charts at Number 92. There has been nary a musical peep from Rossiter in the eight years since and, without wishing to be uncharitable, it’s fair to say that there hasn’t been a noticeable clamour for his return. Still, Gene were an accomplished band who had flashes of brilliance – their greatest hits are well worth checking out – and so The Defenestration Of St Martin is an intriguing prospect however out of the blue it seems.
Fittingly, the album has been crowdfunded by fans through the Pledgemusic website, a neat way of sidestepping the problem of reaching a wider audience. A problem this certainly would be: the album is a sparse, dark affair largely consisting of Rossiter’s tremulous vocals over a piano and little else. Little known Gene b-side Drawn To The Deep End is a clear precursor both musically and thematically, its plaintive couplet “the town boys roaring by, sometimes I wanna die” fitting an album which had the working title of Songs To Make Grown Men Cry. It should be obvious, then, that we’re a long way from snappy Gene anthems like Fighting Fit and As Good As It Gets. This may sound like a slog but, happily, the album is a revelation which succeeds due in no small part to it compelling melodies and Rossiter’s own vocals, as strong as they ever have been.
Indeed during the ’90s Rossiter’s strong, swooning voice (and angst-ridden persona) was frequently compared to Morrissey, who very clearly saw Gene as sons and heirs and included them on his 2004 NME compilation Songs To Save Your Life and his Meltdown line-up that same year. It’s a comparison which is almost actively encouraged on this album, from its bleakly comedic title to the fact that 1% of the crowdsourced funds will go to the League Against Cruel Sports. Yet if his influence permeates the record, Morrissey has rarely sounded as crestfallen and bare as this – truly this is music for heartbreak and the wee small hours of the morning.
It kicks off with the powerful Ten Points Of A Compass, a quietly furious 10 minute attack on an absent father: “the only thing I got from you was my name, this stupid name.” If Rossiter’s torment wasn’t evident enough, his anguished scream briefly penetrates the gloom on a lengthy instrumental climax which is utterly spellbinding. It’s an intensity which would ultimately prove draining over the course of an album, so it’s a relief that it’s followed by the evidently Morrissey-esque I Want To Choose When I Sleep Alone which belies its despondent lyrics with a brilliant, punchy melody. Sing It Loud is even briefer and it’s no wonder, being a jet black ode from a jilted lover to the woman he is about to kill. From Darling Sorrow’s tale of “two jumpers who never got to leap” to Where There Are Pixels’ hymn to “those who tried but… realised their life’s online, just like mine”, it’s sombre fare.
Nonetheless there are dazzling moments of light: I Must Be Jesus begins as a lost Bacharach classic, its sweet piano line contrasting comically with its tale of how “if life’s unkind then you must be divine, and yes I do mean literally.” The presence of a Welsh male choir makes things all the more appealingly absurd. Drop Anchor, meanwhile, is an attractively forceful plea to settle down and perhaps the song most reminiscent of Gene here – yet the dying 30 seconds of album closer Let The Waves Carry You finds a full band suddenly bursting into life, contrasting sharply with the rest of the record and offering a tantalising glimpse of future possibilities.
A moody yet romantic triumph, The Defenestration Of St Martin is far better than anyone could hope to expect from a long-dormant Britpop survivor. Its beating heart shames many of Rossiter’s water-treading peers who have reunited to mine ’90s nostalgia and while it is unlikely to achieve great sales, it is sure to win many ardent admirers who will hope that it’s not eight years until Rossiter’s next outing.