When Staying Alive's The Latest Craze Tim Arnold (TA Records)
Releasing your twentieth album in 2020 might seem like a happy accident of fate. A convenient mirroring of numbers. Appearances though can be deceptive. When Tim Arnold began work on When Staying Alive's The Latest Craze, it was the day after the first national lockdown in response to a modern plague. Theatres, cinemas and venues instantly fell dark. Bars and restaurants became empty. What in wartime hadn't been realised in centuries of various conflicts transpired in a smattering of hours. The visible consequences of an invisible enemy. It became something akin to enforced self-contemplation on an industrial scale.
Now in the throes of a second lesson in lockdown. Arnold's album finally, after changes of release dates, wilfully slips into the strange daylight. An example of what he has achieved on his unwanted holiday from whatever normality seemed to be, before a heavily eerie silence set in. The influence of change on the creative impulse is a curious ether. He has used the time he has moved through to dig deep emotionally, and the process details a work of raw and pared down honesty.
“Nothing On Earth” begins with a brief trill of birdsong, a telling touch as during lockdown their musicality became more noticeable as the amount of transport on the roads decreased. The song has an urgency and plaintive directness. A hymn of hope that suggests Tom McRae at his most stirring it drives along with a train-like insistence.
“There's nothing on earth quite like
Being alone with someone else
The simplest of charms of throwing your arms around someone else”
“Weird Now” comes across as a rather English form of Talking Heads in kooky cahoots with Kevin Ayers and has pastoral eloquence akin to a sequence of David Robillard poems (1953-1988) stitched together in a tapestry of note-like delights.
“I miss people. I miss friends.
Starting to feel weird now. It's starting to feel weird now”
Arnold's voice soars like a stranded chorister, a beautifully sincere punch from the soul, as his postcard from the edge blips and bleeps to an unlikely conclusion.
Things take on a much more funky turn with “One Percent,” a swaggering slab of infectious vibes and sheer verve. The string arrangement has an unhinged insistence that powers the affair along like a manic dervish. Proof positive that Tim Arnold knows how to pen a mini pop sensation of a tune, if indeed any such evidence were ever required.
There resides a semi-Kraftwerkian conceit via the intro to “Change of System:”
“Isn't that enough
Names to make a difference?
Isn't that enough to end your game?
Isn't that enough shame on you to listen?”
The gentle rap and trance-like mantra requests a moral and social change that harnesses the confusion many feel within the present political climate. A gracious protest, but a vitally important one to mint and circulate.
This dark tribute is an essential and worthy means of acknowledgement. The arrangement suggests Japan at their “The Art Of Parties” most barbed and sombre, and the song mentions the names of some of the health workers who have died during the pandemic.
“Another Record That Changed My Life” is a wonderful list of influences. Think Lloyd Cole in a jaunty tango with Edwyn Collins, acoustic heaven in a few minutes full of evocative references, and carried perfectly on the heels of a helluva tune. Wonderfully radio friendly in all its earworm insidiouness, it has some wonderful guitar licks to bring it to a close.
“Ziggy and The Wall.
Get close to Judy At Carnegie Hall”
This must be the nattiest, neatest lyrical couplet you'll encounter in this or any other year. Spirited, inspired and celebratory you don't need to know all the references to run along with the jubilation of its vibe. A genuine tribute to the soundtracks and mindscapes that enhance and shade our inner lives.
In “Key Worker” there's a doomy and cinematic urgency of threat and danger written from the perspective of those for whom in their role as essential workers there has been no safety in lockdown, and the many who have died as a consequence of their own selflessness. The track features the contribution of former Penguin Cafe Orchestra stalwart and now Buddhist monk Phra Peter Suparo who zoomed in his contribution from his monastery in Thailand. A perfect twist of spiritual modernity within a heartfelt elegy.
“It's not what I'm used to
But I risk my own life for you...
I'm just happy.
I'm just happy to work at all...
I was given a pack of ten hand wipes
And was told to get on with it”
“The Wonder” possess a watery ambience and is a spirited and lilting expression of battered hope entwined with observations that aren't joyous, but which concludes with an uplifting lilt suggestive of striving and disappearing into light.
“Here Lies Liberty” essentially sets a tone poem of voices that spook the listener with whispers and wireless blips and bleeps, before Arnold's voice lilts in with a Jeff Buckley nakedness. A modern folk lament, as empowering as it is uplifting and is both new-age and simultaneously timeless. An ethereal act of defiance, an incantation and a spell that works in a perfectly sublime manner. The ghostly words are actually Orphic Hymns to the gods and goddesses of dreams recited by the performance artist and dream researcher Kate Alderton. An ancient and modern twist of appropriate appropriation.
The birdsong returns at the start of the concluding song “The Great Without” in a swoon and swirl of encompassing piano.
“I am thinking a lot about all our friends
Thoughts become words that say ‘when’
When will we close the screens and stand shoulder to shoulder again?”
A smouldering epic of grandeur driven along on the wings of hope, what enfolds, informs and comforts in the way that crafted eloquence often does, and yet it falls beautifully apart at the end, as a nifty and neat touch.
In years to come there will likely be much written about the creative response to this time of crisis and confusion. Tim Arnold has taken the perfect stab at being a leading and truthful messenger of these dark days. Spontaneous and sincere, his reflections, like all astute creativity, transcends the spark of its inception. This is much more than a lockdown sequence of songs, it is an inspired reaction to having time and isolation forced into your hands.
The cover features two of his friends, appropriately masked in a beatific embrace. They were introduced by him and have now become romantically attached. A perfect illustration of the contents that they decorate and adorn. The image effortlessly expresses a wonderful hope for the future that awaits when we are fortunate enough to harness the moments that will certainly follow our enforced experiences of confinement.