Barry Adamson: “Back to the Cat”
Barry Adamson couldn’t have picked a better song to open his new album, Back to the Cat. The smoky horns, strutting bass line, and lazy piano figures leave us with no doubt as to where we are-in some shady, smoke-filled bar on the edge of town-and when Adamson starts singing, we learn everything we need to know about our narrator. He “woke up this morning with a crazy dream” that the “Earth was a burning ball of fire,” and from there it isn’t long before the Devil and his demons enter the story. By the time the story ends, our guide through the twilit netherworld is rattling off a laundry list of freaks and losers and outcasts-the cast of characters we’re to meet along the way-and he ends the song with an ominous growl: “And now I’m going down.” But is it a final farewell, or an invitation to follow?
That, of course, depends on how brave of a listener you care to be. Adamson is nothing if not dramatic, and opening his album this way is intentional-it’s the sound of the door opening just a crack, barely enough for us to peek into the album and see what awaits us in the remaining songs. And it isn’t exactly frivolous fare-it’s an album strewn with broken hearts and shattered dreams, crowded with junkies and drunkards and whores-but as dark as it may sound on paper, it’s a total delight on record.
Adamson-formerly the bass player for Magazine, then one of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds-sounds like he’s drinking from the same creative well as Tom Waits. In fact, it sounds like he’s hanging out in the same seedy bars; Back to the Cat comes as close as anything can get to capturing the same spirit of early Waits classics like Small Change and The Heart of Saturday Night. But where Waits draws his inspiration from American blues, post-rock experimentalism, and vaudeville, Adamson’s music is a different animal altogether. He is, first and foremost, a composer, and his albums all sound like soundtracks to films that haven’t been made yet (and would probably be impossibly weird if they were). His music is grandly theatrical, even delightfully, intentionally campy sometimes-Adamson is clearly playing a persona here, and his music is doubtless inspired as much by film noir and spy movie soundtracks as much as anything. But there’s also some sultry jazz, sleazy lounge, rollicking rock and roll, pop, funk, and even-perversely!-some gospel. It’s a gritty and greasy brew of piano and organ, electric guitar, and Enrico Mancini horns.
And it all works amazingly well. The music of Back to the Cat is alluringly dark, thick and full, cinematic in all the right ways. Indeed, there are two dynamite instrumental numbers here that feel just as crucial to the fabric of the record as any of the other tracks, and Adamson has sequenced his songs in such a way that it feels like a story gradually unfolding; if “The Beaten Side of Town” sets the stage and introduces the cast of characters, “Straight ‘Til Sunrise” and the Elvis-style rockabilly “Spend a Little Time” let us get to know them a little better; “I Could Love You” slows things down for a soulful, organ-drenched jukebox number that brings some tenderness and emotion into the mix, while late-album tracks like the horn-laden gospel raver “Civilization” and the somber pop ballad “People” feel like crescendos, epiphanies, and album closer “Psycho Sexual” is appropriately epic, a druggy summary of everything that’s come before it.
But is it worth it, spending so much time in Adamson’s shady bar? Sure it is. Theatrical though he may be, he’s no sensationalist, and the point of these songs is not to shock us with how sleazy they can be; on the contrary, though the music is certainly greasy and dark, Adamson’s songs are teeming with humor and compassion, brimming with humanity, finding wisdom and beauty even amidst the profane. Plus, the album is just flat-out delightful. Adamson combines styles and influences into an imaginative and evocative whole that is stirring as well as spooky, illuminating and mysterious at the same time, and vivid enough that, for this particular soundtrack, no accompanying film is necessary. Adamson’s achievement here is deeply impressive, and the album is a dark and irresistible gem for any listener courageous enough to give it a try.