Barry Adamson: “I Will Set You Free”
Barry Adamson’s Back to the Cat may be the best album you’ve never heard before– unless, of course, you’re a long-time reader of this blog, in which case you know that I regard it as one of the five or six most bracing and original records of the last several years. The album pillages from the past but is ultimately without precedent or peer– plus, everything about it is just so perfect in its conjuring of late-night, big-city sleaze. One thing I marvel at is how Adamson takes the dramatic cues and cinematic tropes we associate with film music, and makes Back to the Cat into a true soundtrack in search of a movie.
It’s been four years since that album came out, and in the meantime, Adamson has taken his love of film music to the next logical level. He’s made an actual film, a creepy, noir-ish short called The Therapist. You might be inclined to think that he’s gotten the movie bug out of his system, then, and one listen to his new record, I Will Set You Free, might give you a feeling of confirmation.
And true enough: My first time through the record, I took it to be Adamson’s roots-rock album. Where Back to the Cat opens with a dark descent into the city’s shady underbelly, the new record more or less dances into the same netherworld. Opener “Get Your Mind Right” opens with a growl and the shake of a tambourine, and takes off into a cutthroat R&B number. There are horns present, an an organ that conjures the same sweat and stink of the last album, but Adamson is more about the swagger than the cinema here.
Other songs follow suit, rocking and swinging and kicking hard, but repeated listens muddy things considerably. Take the very next song, “Black Holes in My Brain.” Adamson picks up his lounge lizard persona once again, as though sliding into the same costume he wore for Back to the Cat, but the song is a pure ass-shaking, finger-snapping groove. And yet, between the nightclub piano and the moaning trumpet, it’s clear that Adamson hasn’t altogether left soundtrack music behind.
And so it goes. The lead single, “Destination,” is pure primal rock, fueled by shards of noise and post-punk guitar. It reminds me simply of the fact that, before he was a hep cat, Adamson was a Bad Seed, and before that, a member of Magazine. The song suggests a full-speed drive through empty nighttime streets– but what’s surprising is the chorus, a pure pop hook! But then comes “Trigger City Blues,” with its shattered-glass and ringing phone sound effects, as much a movie set piece as anything Adamson has done.
So what’s the story here? Nothing less than Barry Adamson’s liberation, I think. Here it’s like his musical knowledge and imagination are finally running amok, more freely than ever before. He’s not crafting something as focused as Back to the Cat, so the album loses a little something, I think, in the fact that it just doesn’t hand together and pack the same big whallop as the last one. But it gains a loose-limbed vibe that makes it every bit as impressive a showcase for Adamson’s talents. It pulls together his entire history– plus some exciting new directions– into a freewheeling revue of the man’s myriad gifts as songwriter and producer.
For me, then it’s a most welcome companion piece to Back to the Cat. One of my favorite cuts from that album, “Civilization,” offered evidence that Adamson could write rousing, rocking songs capable of bringing an entire room to its feet. This album expands on that gift with some straight-up nasty R&B numbers, drenched in organ grease and ultimately opening up to reveal the kinds of hidden, sophisticated production flourishes (ranging from horns to ambient noise) that Adamson is known for.
But I might like the ballads here best of all. “Looking to Love Somebody” is an organ-led, mid-tempo soul song, I guess, with a lovely muted trumpet break. Even better is an emotionally naked, piano-based tune called “If You Love Her.” It could almost be the bastard offspring of Bacharach and Scott Walker, with its aching sadness and sexual longing; it’s decked out with strings but what stands out is how powerfully and soulfully Adamson can sell it as a singer.
Closing song “Stand In” opens with washes of synths, and for a moment sounds like it’s plumbing the same seediness and dread that marked the last record’s final moments; when the song properly kicks in, though, it’s a surprisingly direct, upbeat, and emotionally available song, albeit with plenty of off loops and flashes of production weirdness. I reckon that’s as good a way as any to summarize the place of I Will Set You Free in this very special singer/songwriter’s canon; it may be a stretch to call this the sunny side of Barry Adamson’s world, but he’s never sounded freer in what he does.