Kevin Ayers – The Unfairground
Originally published in Stylus magazine.
For anyone who has become immunized to the false dawns of that most debased of critical terms, the “stunning return to form,” it is only right and proper to approach the comeback album from Kevin Ayers with a certain wary skepticism. After all, it has been over thirty years since the run of inventive, idiosyncratic albums which won him his reputation—a run which was brought to an end partly by botched attempts to turn the deeply reluctant Ayers into a mainstream star, and partly by his own loss of confidence following the critical backlash which ensued. (The paradigm shift of punk which followed close on its heels didn’t help much either.)
Routinely described, even during his heyday, as “self-effacing,” Ayers responded by exiling himself to Spain and releasing a series of patchy albums during the 1980s, which gave the impression of a somewhat lost and defeated figure. Although 1992’s creditable Still Life with Guitar showed signs of getting back in the game, the subsequent tragic death of guitarist Ollie Halsall, Ayers’ closest musical associate for nearly twenty years, sent him scuttling back into semi-obscurity, leaving his remaining supporters with little hope that he would ever record again.
For these long-suffering fans in particular, The Unfairground comes pre-loaded with perilously high expectations, as well as some clear warning signs. After fifteen years of studio silence, a playing time of 34 minutes sounds distinctly miserly, and the reworking of two songs from that troubled 1980s period (the opening “Only Heaven Knows” and the closing “Take It Easy,” now re-titled “Run Run Run”) suggests that the well of inspiration might be close to drying up. Such understandable misgivings only serve to make The Unfairground’s triumph all the more remarkable.
The album’s three years of gestation have yielded a warm, luxuriant richness of sound, balanced by a tightly crafted compression of ideas; consequently, not one second of those 34 minutes feels wasted. As with the best of Ayers’ 1970s work, there is a sense that the listener is entering a self-contained musical universe, which defines itself on its own terms. It is a world of brightness and color, as reflected in the cover art (a mildly surreal depiction of Coney Island), but the gaiety is tempered by a certain sense of the solitary and forlorn (the “unfairground” is a deserted one).
Although Ayers’ talent for penning crisp, wry, tuneful songs had never altogether deserted him, this is his first album in three decades that gives his songs the musical context which they properly deserve. In this respect, the difference between the bloated “Take It Easy” of the 1980s and the nimble “Run Run Run” of the 2000s is quite remarkable; the bare words and melody may be the same, but in all other respects, we are looking at two utterly different works. Perhaps the crucial difference is this: for once, Ayers is not prepared to let the hired hands walk all over him. Instead, he has surrounded himself with a set of collaborators who sound in tune with his ethos, and both willing and able to do these songs full justice. With Ayers firmly back in the driving seat, directing every last note, this sense of engaged, enthusiastic collaboration permeates the whole album.
Perhaps trickiest of all, a bridge has been formed between the old and the new—between the 63-year old founding father of British psychedelia, and younger admirers such as Ladybug Transistor and Architecture In Helsinki, members of whom accompany him throughout. Rather than strive for the self-consciously contemporary, the arrangements bring a fresh feel to a broadly classic template, as well as making subtle references to Ayers’ musical heritage. There’s a slight whiff of Pepper-era Beatles lurking within the Tuscon Philharmonia’s string accompaniments, and a brief but unmistakable nod towards “I Am the Walrus” at the start of “Friends and Strangers.” The tumbling guitar figure which runs through the brooding, ominous “Brainstorm” evokes memories of “Irreversible Neural Damage,” Ayers’ 1974 duet with Nico, and there’s even a heart-warming reunion with former singing partner Bridget St. John on the standout cut “Baby Come Home.”
Other old friends include Hugh Hopper (Soft Machine) on bass, Phil Manzanera (Roxy Music) making some fine guest contributions on guitar, and a sampled Robert Wyatt adding wordless vocals to the suitably plaintive “Cold Shoulder,” by means of a mysterious piece of software known as “The Wyattron.”
Lyrically speaking, the songs deal with lost or long-distance love, and with Ayers’ mixed emotions as he contemplates the passing of the years and the approach of old age. As ever, the language is simple and the sentiments deceptively oblique, with the occasional cynical aside. (“Some people really need attention, see just what they want to see; never more than their reflection in someone else’s fantasy.”) The sheer catchiness of the songwriting lends the material a straightforward initial appeal, which peels away over time to reveal something altogether more subtle and elusive at its core.
If The Unfairground doesn’t quite qualify as a “stunning” return to form—“stunning” never really being Ayers’ stock in trade—it certainly represents the delightful and unexpected renaissance of a perennially undervalued artist, whose quiet but significant influence is long overdue for re-assessment.