By the time of 1989′s release of the album Cloudland, Pere Ubu had been a band for roughly 14 years. Cloudland was the second album the band had released on the Fontana label, an era that the band’s Ubu Projex* website classifies as its own period. Cloudland was “an epic journey”, the followup to the less “successful” “clattery heap” of 1988′s The Tenement Year.
The first track on the album is “Breath”. Here, watch this:
Watching this video for the first time, Marsh and I had a reaction that was more or less of the “oh my goodness, what have we just found” variety. A string of hectic instant messaging and twitter usage followed that was based partly on disbelief that NBC could ever pull the plug on a program like Night Music (from whence the clip comes) and partly on disbelief at the amazing, all-encompassing, heart-crushing immediacy of the song itself.
In a way, it is difficult to form any kind of thesis about the song, since it fucking destroys, so what follows is more or less just some observations:
The clip displays a lot of the standard live performance aspects that one would expect, but it also shows the unique qualities of David Thomas and of Pere Ubu as a band. Firstly, there is Thomas himself: hulking, just a massive man, singing with more actual emotion than almost any singer. And I do mean actual emotion: this is not the controlled aesthetic performance that 99% of singers give, nor is it the wild, reckless ecstasy that the other .999% (e.g. Tina Turner) might give.
The emotion on display in Thomas’ performance is felt, instinctive, immediate; it is not really available to musical measurements. Thomas himself describes his singing style thusly**:
It comes from not having a good natural voice. I don’t even have an average voice. Plus I can’t tell if one note is pitched higher than another unless the differences are stark, or if there is a spatial frame to the sound I am hearing. I am, in fact, tone deaf. I became the singer because the guitar I bought in order to become the guitarist hurt my fingers playing it. So I thought to myself, “I’ll be the singer!” I had never sung, not even in the car driving around.
Over time I became aware that I don’t actually hear sound the way others seem to hear it. I can’t hold notes in my head and can’t imitate them. I can’t remember melodies. So I had to figure it out. What I figured out was that music also existed as a spatial and temporal complex so I worked out how to use those elements to communicate a story in a way that had a semblance of musicality. In other words, I found that melody can be derived directly from time and space. I create a phrasing that makes use of those elements, engages the instrumental elements, and it all somehow comes out okay. At least after a couple years of initial trial and error.
So we have here in the video a singer who is simply not concerned with melody or “music” in the strictest sense. The concern with the spatial and temporal dimensions, though, seems almost to manifest in Thomas’ gestures. Take, for example, the way he beats his chest in time with the drums when he sings “Cuz it’s breaking my heart” or the way in which he sort of acts out the lyrics of the bridge (“Had I kicked it/down the sidewalk/in the gutter”). His gestures, his tics, his urgings of the guitar player, his random shouts, move his activity beyond singing. The menace and anger on his face during the bridge…he is acting.
And then there is the song itself: a song of such universal and yet direct sadness, its lyrics that thrust straight at your chest (“Let me walk with you / Cuz it’s breaking my heart”) counterpoised against the vast space, the vast horizontal aspect of its production and performance (see this article for a discussion of these production values in 1980s music). The song is so simple, such a direct statement of a universal feeling, that it takes on an almost operatic quality. It is thus entirely appropriate that this song, a song about separation, about alienation of the heart, about alienation of the spirit from the dirt (“Now it’s parking lots”) of the world, functions as a sort of overture to Pere Ubu’s epic journey.
* See http://www.ubuprojex.net.