I must admit that, although having been quite the Afghan Whigs fan, Greg Dulli’s first foray outside the comfort zone of his own band (the now departed Afghan Whigs) with Twilight as Played by The Twilight Singers seemed to have passed by under my radar (something that was resolved within three days of listening to the follow-up). So it was this second album that was my first exposure to this new direction and new approach. The result is a recording that is one of those few occasions where someone can take a step away from one stage and start up on a new one with such success, exploring new directions and indeed causing me to explore interesting directions of my own that has resulted in a knee that still squeaks if weather conditions are right…
Some albums grab me somewhere during the first listen with a cunningly-wrought hook. Others can take months (or even years in some cases) to worm their way into my consciousness and heart. Blackberry Belle caught me with the delivery of the very first “Black out the windows, it’s party time” line of the album, and has yet to let go. And this choice of opener sets the stall out for the whole work, as the story of Martin Eden plays heavily throughout the whole concept of Blackberry Belle, with Jack London’s book of the same name (detailing the story of a writer struggling to become famous, and then hating and rejecting it all when he does)’s final sentence appearing at the end of the accompanying lyric booklet, and the themes of the pursuit and trappings of success followed by their darker consequences are sown through each and every song here. The result comes across as a striking thematic cross between Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall where individual aspects of life are examined and scrutinised in sometimes painful detail.
It’s not a sad album though for all of this. The music flows through each song in various ways from Martin Eden’s farewell hymn and The Killer‘s lonely but forward-moving lament, Esta Noche and Decatur Street‘s sleazy grooves and closing with Number Nine‘s perversely redemptive tones (where Greg and guest Mark Lanegan seem to switch roles throughout as both a man pleading for one last chance at life, and the Angel or Devil with the power to grant or deny this) which ends with a haunting take on The Great Gig in the Sky that leaves the listener wondering just how it ended. My favourite song on this however, and strangely for me the song that has been my constant favourite from first spin to this one, is the joyous Feathers that comes across as a defiant “get up and get on with it” statement that can’t help but provide a driving force to anyone listening, and that reprises Martin Eden’s “No wind, no rain, no conversation” decisive and redemptive line to provide a positive kindred spirit to the album’s opening track.
From start to end, Blackberry Belle is something truly special, and one that firmly establishes Greg Dulli as a singular entertaining force who knows how to entertain but isn’t afraid to sometimes reveal his darkest thoughts and experiences in the process. And for something that was largely created in a short space of time to be released in the stead of an album that was already close to completion (what would have been the Twilight Singers’ 2nd album Amber Headlights wasn’t released for another couple of years, with only Papillon in its entirety and a few lyrical/musical ideas surviving from that to appear on BB), it’s an amazingly focused album. And it’s also one of those rare albums where, such is the scope of emotion on offer, it can be listened to at any time in any mood and it cannot fail to lift the spirits. One of those truly rare occasions where having it in my collection is so vital that the time before its existence seems so flat in comparison.
And now, the explanation for the knee.
The first time i saw the Twilight Singers perform was in February 2004 (complete with massively-expositional ticket) in the Academy 3 in Manchester – a venue I love for its intimacy (low-ish stage, tiny room, friendly crowd) and handy bar location. This show will stay in my head as being one of the best shows I’ve ever been to due to the band and crowd being in such complete sync that the more fun one half had, the other would respond in kind. And it helps that Greg is such a relaxed and amusing host that it felt like he was playing in someone’s living room rather than a concert venue with his and the band’s enthusiasm, onstage banter (his local knowledge and anecdotal memory wherever he plays is always memorable) and his infectious delight at just being there just made for a great set and fun time for all, to the extent that we got two encores and a thankyou from a bandmember (who may or may not have been Scott Ford, memory gets a bit hazy as explained shortly) who came out after the show to express his surprise that so many people showed up on a Monday night, and also to the extent that I did what everyone else was doing at the time and got massively drunk.
What happened next was that I set off from the venue in a very happy and somewhat directionally-challenged inebriated state towards what I thought was the nearest station/taxi rank. What I actually did was set off in the opposite direction and didn’t realise until I was well on the other side of Rusholme’s rightly-famous Curry Mile…
“Ah”, thought I. “Not a problem, I’ll keep going in this same direction and stop the first taxi that passes, as that way I won’t have to admit by way of body language the fact that I am walking the wrong way in front of people who neither know nor care anyway”, such is the way of a male regardless of blood/alcohol levels when presented with a faulty sense of direction.
There was no taxi. There was lots of rain though. And I had brand-new and cheaply-bought jeans on – so the overall result was me walking fourteen miles home in a rather convoluted fashion, my legs had been dyed purple from the new/cheap jeans, and to this day my left knee still hurts and – on a damp day (most days in Manchester, then) – squeaks as if it’s trying to connect to the internet if I try to stand up too quickly. A small, squeaky price to pay for such a great night out.