Bowie, Eno, Neu! and existential crisis rendered beautifully
If the popular memory of Blancmange is Neil Arthur with his curly mop of hair, delivering ‘Living On The Ceiling’ in that impressive baritone of his as he wanders around the streets of Marrakech in a 1980s travelogue video, it’s sorely in need of updating. Neil Arthur is an artist thoroughly matured.
This album, his third since coming back from a 25-odd year hiatus (fourth, if you count the instrumental ‘Nil By Mouth’) takes the downbeat mood of last year’s ‘Semi Detached’, and takes it up (or down) a notch or seven. Where ‘Semi Detached’ was surprising and fun with its references to The Fall and Paddington, ‘Commuter 23’ is altogether darker and moodier.
Having said that, it retains the same resigned humour that made ‘Semi Detached’ so satisfying, particularly on the Neu!-esque ‘Last Night (I Dreamed I Had A Job)’. Guitars float around in the intro, recalling (not for the last time on this record) Michael Rother’s delicate and melodic touch, before Arthur recounts said dream in a distorted and slightly anguished manner. “Last night, I dreamed I had a job / A steady job”. It has something to do with moving cardboard boxes around in a dark room; a kind of existential nightmare vision of being trapped in an Amazon warehouse for the rest of your life, a 21st century dot com myth of Sisyphus, perhaps.
If this is making ‘Commuter 23’ sound like a doom-laden collection of moods for the permanently miserable, well, it sort of is. But that would be to ignore the strangely uplifting feel of the album. Given there’s much here that feels like a man struggling to find meaning in a meaningless world, what rescues it, no, elevates it, is the emotional honesty set against the beauty of the melodies and the electronic purity of the sound canvas. The drums are mostly CR-78-a-likes, a rhythmic comfort blanket if ever there was one, and the overall impression is one of calm and serenity, even though it’s about as uptight and twitchy as you could hope for from any deadly serious synth album.
The frankly glorious ‘Elemental Change’ is a kind of centre point. The DNA of Neu!’s ‘Hallogallo’ and ’Hero’ swirls through its slowly unravelling chord sequence of hypnotic motorik rhythms, every chord held that little bit longer than you expect, emphasising the sense of anticipation.
Lyrics peppered with mundane references to Google (‘Judge Mental’), or pages being “superglued” on the empty, haunting ‘Waiting All The Time’ keep up his poet’s ability with words, to yank real life into magical realism and vice versa. The latter, mournful and mostly beatless, a booming bass note its main anchor, precedes the instrumental ‘NHS’, which, like much of the album, has more than a touch of the Bowie Berlin instrumental about it, and the two tracks taken together resonate with experiences we’ve all had; tense and tedious dead time spent in hospital waiting rooms fearing the worst.
‘Commuter 23’ is a moving album, filled with textures, atmospheres, melodies and witty and memorable wordplay which reveals an artist moving into a whole new phase of creative life. Keep it coming, Neil.