On Repeat: Barry Adamson

Barry Adamson was a founding member both of the seminal art-punk band Magazine and of Nick Cave’s ragtag gang of Bad Seeds, but he might be best known for composing the soundtrack for David Lynch’s film Lost Highway. And that’s just the beginning of his soundtrack work; throughout his solo career, Adamson has returned to writing and recording soundtracks again and again, following a musical muse that is undeniably cinematic both in style and in scope. In fact, if you were to ask Adamson, he’d likely tell you that every record he’s ever made is a soundtrack– even if most of them don’t actually have movies to go with them.

I’m not sure who invented the “soundtrack in search of a film” aesthetic. The idea is bandied around quite a bit in music circles, and Adamson is the man most frequently credited with dreaming it up. Some musical historians might disagree with that, but regardless: Adamson knows how to write a killer soundtrack album, music so evocative and grandiose that it feels like, well, a movie, shown in glorious Technicolor.

His latest such soundtrack, Back to the Cat, doesn’t have a corresponding movie. And maybe that’s for the best. Listening to the album, one imagines that its film equivalent would be weird beyond words, dark and gritty and more than a little surreal. There aren’t many filmmakers who could possibly come up with a film that could hold its own against Adamson’s quirky imagination, so maybe it’s best that the album stands on its own, as a soundtrack to Adamson’s own twisted dreams and glorious obsessions.

But if there’s no picture to accompany it, you might ask, then what exactly makes it a soundtrack? It’s not that the music tells a story per se, although there is certainly a strong narrative thrust to it. It’s not that there are any sweeping flourishes of strings or brass; it’s a much greasier, gaudier piece of music than that. And it’s not that it’s an instrumental work where the listener has to provide his or her own story; actually, only two of its ten tracks are wordless.

Still, the medium is unmistakable: This is a soundtrack through and through, made by a man who’s haunted, bewtiched by the very concept of the soundtrack. And he explores that obsession with bizarrely compelling results, filling the album with musical references, a pastiche of familiar styles and sounds, and archetypal characters in such a way that he creates and then subverts his own weird mythology. You don’t need the booming voice of a narrator to tell you what the setting is, or who the characters are– the music, and Adamson’s carefully-chosen words, tell you everything you need to know.

Make no mistake: The journey Adamson invites you on is a dark and a strange one, but it’s also endlessly seductive. It’s seedier than a Tom Waits album and more noir than The Maltese Falcon, with a musical vocabulary that’s fluent in the campiest styles and influences you can imagine– lounge crooning, Elvis-style rockabilly, acid-jazz, Burt Bacharach, Scott Walker, Isaac Hays, and, of course, all the craziest film scores you’ve ever heard. Adamson treats all these styles and influences as equal, drawing equally from all of them and blurring the lines of where one ends and the other begins, using the connotations and implied meanings of each genre to tell his story and create not just a musical landscape, but an entire world. Or at least its seedy underbelly.

If there were to be a movie based on this record, you can bet it wouldn’t be the feel-good hit of the summer. These songs are full of addicts and murderers and jilted lovers and junkies and whores– all residents of “The Beaten Side of Town,” he tells us on the first song. These are the kinds of folks you’d expect to find hanging around at 2 in the morning at Tom Waits’ mystical bar. Dark is the word to describe it, but dark doesn’t always mean dispiriting or depressing, especially not when you’re talking about a writer with such a vivid imagination and such a firm grip on gallows humor. These songs might make you laugh, and, when you least expect it, they might even knock you upside the head with a surprising burst of compassion.

Indeed, even as Adamson sings about a world ruled by Satan and his minions, where death lies in wait behind every closed door, it’s hard not to think there’s something oddly redemptive here– or at least, something strongly moral. Maybe it’s as simple as the fact that he’s taken such dubious pieces of sound and story and stitched them together into a truly masterly, beautiful, endlessly creative piece of music, one in which style and substance are one and the same. I’m still not sure if this is the best album I’ve heard this year or not, but it’s up there, and it’s a must for any listener with a sense of adventure– and of humor.

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3 responses to “On Repeat: Barry Adamson”

  1. Daniel says :

    Just listening to ‘Miles’ by Barry- magic! Flows like sugar…!

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Back to Barry Adamson « The Hurst Review - October 13, 2008
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