Barry Adamson begins his new album, Back to the Cat, with a dream– a feverish, apocalyptic fantasy about “The Beaten Side of Town.” It’s either nightmarish or utterly euphoric– or perhaps a little of both– depending on your perspective. In it, our shady narrator emerges from the shadows and recalls a vision he had of a giant temple, with a steeple spire and a sign that bids welcome, in no uncertain terms, to anyone and everyone: Junkies and liquorheads, lowlifes and deadbeats, addicts and hustlers. We’ve even told that agnostics are on the list.
As Adamson lays down his litany of the broken and the downtrodden, the freaks and the thugs and the addicts, he sets the tone for what the album is all about. It’s about people, in all their brokenness and ugliness and need. So for the next several songs, Adamson catalogs a strange and bewildering assortment of nocturnal citydwellers, inhabitants of the beaten side of town, all of them messed up and all of them ultimately beautiful. Adamson, whose modus operandi has always been to craft soundtracks in search of films, is a remarkably sophisticated guy, painting in broad strokes with mythological and cultural archetypes– the kinds of characters we’ve all seen and heard a million times before, they’re so ingrained in our humanity– and then fills them in with his devilish humor, his poet’s eye for detail, and his odd mix of cynicism and compassion. He gives us jilted lovers, men on the lam, characters desperate to escape from their past, and perhaps their present as well.
But he really clinches it on the next-to-last-song, a song that’s titled– appropriately enough– “People.” Amid the flurry of images and ideas that Adamson packs together, this tune is so simple that it feels almost confessional in nature. And it’s here that he unlocks the door of what the album is all about: “People, they are dumb/ And it’s come to my attention/ That I am one.” And there, with that line, Adamson places himself on the same plain previously inhabited only by Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Joe Henry, and maybe Leonard Cohen, a place where humanity is seen in all of its messiness and depravity, its addiction and its need– and then afforded a measure of dignity and compassion, as the singer and listener both identify themselves among the beautiful and damned.
That’s a big part of Adamson’s gift– his ability to peer into the shadows and back alleys of our civilization and find things that truly alarm and dismay, but also things that remind us of our shared humanity and of the strange beauty therein. The fact that his lyrical sophistication is matched– even exceeded– by his musical sophistication, as he brings together elements of jazz noir, James Bond soundtracks, Elvis-loving rock and roll, acid funk, gospel, and lounge crooning, is all the more reason why Back to the Cat isn’t just one of the year’s finest records– it’s downright essential.