John Howard Cut The Wire (You Are The Cosmos)
As the last century died, English singer-songwriter John Howard was but a glimmer and and glint in the vinyl graveyards. Staring out from the cover of his sole LP Kid In A Big World like an early '70s suited and booted Dorian Gray, he was a lost, late arrival on the glittering tail-coats of Glam. Part Elton without the faux American affectations, a dash of Bowie at his piano-drenched best, a twist of the panache his American camp soul brother, Jobriath, plus an echo and a whisper of Noel Coward all louche and lounge, Howard had talent to burn, and a career to earn, but fate had other plans. His audacious maiden single 'Goodbye Suzie' was banned by the BBC, for being too depressing, short-hand for homophobia via a then closeted executive. Two further albums went unreleased by CBS, and after a career in A&R and a spate of heroic but neglected 45s, one produced by Trevor Horn, he drifted into A&R, and then into early retirement after a sojourn of singing on a cruise ship, the ultimate death knell to one's natural credibility and craft.
There the sad tale should end and almost did. His dreams were literally packed and forgotten in the attic, but albums have an endless life as constantly arriving late letters to strangers. Such was the fate of Kid In A Big World. On its rediscovery and re-release in 2004, so came an interest in the man who made it. The reviews were beyond the usual enthusiasm heaped upon a worthy obscurity, he had songs included on the cover mounted cds of Uncut magazine, and when his comeback album The Dangerous Hours appeared the following year it garnered high praise in The Guardian. Here was a man whose talent had been moth-balled, but well stored. Next came the two albums rejected and refused by CBS and since there has been a dizzying confetti of quality releases, and now with Cut The Wire he is sixteen.
This album is the perfectly realised, utterly understated creation of a man in leisure to his own divine devices, but with nothing left to prove,and nobody to please but himself. It exudes a natural effortless eloquence and "So Here I Go" is a magical folky hoe-down of a beginning. A mellow sequence of vistas imbued with a late '60s into the '70s wistfulness that is reminiscent of the late Alan Hull (Lindisfarne) in tandem with a more perfectly focused Incredible String Band. "Remains" sells a plaintive treatise on memory and time. "If you concentrate on the sky you'll see me flying away" and has echoes of Klaatu and their calling of all members of inter-planetary crafts. With an exquisite undertow of organ it builds to a smouldering, near-epic anthem, subtle and restrained. There are suggestions of both Bill Fay and David Ackles also at play in the moodiness employed. In "Pre-Dawn," Howard magics a sombre Beatles chamber and baroque inflection where elements of "She's Leaving Home" and the trials and tribulations of a Miss E Rigby meld with aspects of "Strawberry Fields Forever." A stunning arrangement, clever enough to acknowledge the influences but equally adept at stepping beyond them. A song of many deft strokes and touches.
"Becoming" is another perfect addition to Howard's haunting canon of reflective, heart straining ballads, total evidence that a little sorrow makes for an aching beauty. Smouldering sufficiently intense to almost burst into flame. "The nights are longer when the days bring in no light." A song of the acceptance of time and the hauntings of the past. The majesty of a backwards glancing melancholia. "Keep Going Angel" holds a whiff of European decadence with a Glam inflection bubbling under and driving the whole affair, elements of "Hunky Dory," Bowie held in check with hints of the maverick tendencies of B.C Camplight also swirls to the mind. With "Cut The Wire," "Pressed my face against the window and wrote I love you with my breath" is a line that any poet, this one included would be happy to have observed and preserved. The song has a gloomy optimism, a plethora of polaroid framed elements, excerpts from a far from teenage opera, but all imbued with a wondering warmth, and a musical box conclusion. With "Idiot Days" there's that skip and a hop one encounters in Paul Williams at his jaunty best, but with a sorrowful Howard regretful glance of resigned woe. At the start of "We Are" you could be briefly entertaining Nico on a rare hit of Prozac, but it quickly strides into a sweep of sheer eloquence:
"We are the essence of our memories. We are the remnants of our dreams."
A certain Brian Wilson moodiness drives and underpins this piano steeped enterprise.
The quirkily entitled "Jean Genet Just Imagined" ghosts aspects of The Beatles "Penny Lane" but gifts it a certain slinkiness and subtle grace that is as masterful as it is haunting. An exercise in how to be influenced, caress them sublimely and move swiftly on. The proceedings end with what should be the swish of a heavily draped gold brocaded magenta velvet curtain. "Long Since" perfectly equips such a requirement. A straining longing á la Elton, that arc of grace that Randy Newman can so effortlessly serve, and Laura Nyro made her signature motif, bold yet vulnerable with a powerful unfettered melody this is a lullaby that ends in goodbye.
Cut The Wire is an album of rare majesty and artful touches without ever seeming brash or showy. John Howard is man at home with himself and his gifts that he is only too glad to share after the wilderness years. He has and continues to, make up for lost time, but will never actually catch up with himself for one simple reason, his verve and accomplishment simply will not allow him to so do. Such is the reward to those who encounter his gifts.
An album to savour by candlelight, a fine red and an open fire, it is a rare treat that cannot fail to astound or entertain. These days Mr. Howard is less of a Dorian Gray, more of a piano stool Walt Whitman in all of his bewhiskered elegance with hats.