M O N E Y - The Shadow of Heaven
M O N E Y could be something. Something untoward and contrary, oblivious and self-contained, something shining and unsullied amidst that morass of filthy flotsam spewed out by spreadsheet labourers, 1FM 'movers', the vampiric middle management whores, a coterie of dead-eyed bloodsuckers whose role has absolutely nothing to do with the freeing and cajoling and expanding of young minds to seek change and discord and dissent in the hearts of their listeners, but instead is all about the dulled lustre of fame, the thrill of affixing their charges' names to a (mere) scene-level consciousness that makes temporary superstars of the (un)lucky few. NME front cover, here we come!
Weren't bands supposed to become part of you, part of your life, more important than your life? Cross over so far into your very being that you'd die for them because you'd been sucked so far into their giddy capers, you'd almost believe they'd die for you. No – don’t laugh.
Wasn't music, popular music in all its wild and unfettered glories, supposed to be - breathe deep – akin to, and aspire to, the greatest art? Oh, but anyone can play guitar, right? Was that our greatest mistake, that gate-opening cultural shift that promoted the dull-witted idea that pop music was for the masses and by the masses? A de-glammed utilitarian response to the concrete and clay. Not so much an escape from the backstreets and the urban workaday but a celebration of them. Rather than the Springsteen ideal – celebrate the little guy, sure, but raise a fist for the glory of triumph and rising above - a revelling in the muck and squalor of defeat and, um, ordinariness.
So show us the M O N E Y.
And they could be something. Really. And here's their debut album and it knows so much. It's generous. Let it in. It knows grace, knows beauty, knows the (im)possibilities of love. It knows that we're little more than animals and it knows we can be heroes but, you know, only when we can be arsed. It is utterly, unspeakably, of itself. It delivers the burning, questioning vision of singer Jamie Lee through a vividly realised series of half narratives and dreamscapes. It is a world removed from sly or knowing or the desperate, keening retreat to a safety net of irony. It is sincere in the way that only the honest and free are (any longer) able to be. It is impeccably serious, emerges as a declamation, a tract, implacably un-self aware.
And, of course, it dares to call itself The Shadow of Heaven. My. Because it at first appears to be chasing that cornerstone requirement for a slight work looking for support from a high falutin' title to elevate, to fake depth and meaning, you'd be forgiven for presuming it's just that. Don't. Sure, a beleaguered sales pitch needs a name and you can call it what you want, Mr Client, as long as it carries with it that ballooning, bumptious sense of self-importance, cod-significance to warm the buyer's heart and sweeten the deal (A Rush of Blood to the Head), or a near-eponymous shorthand, deconstruction to the point of virtually nothing, a retreat from the grand into the realm of the agreeably small (19.)
Think about that title. Four words that destroy in a heartbeat the architecture of faith. Four words that desolate the crumbs of hope and dreams. Roll up, roll up! All hope is lost, folks! Was it not Mark Twain, a wily old fucker at the best of times, who gave us one of the great truisms of modern art - that humour's source lies not in joy, but sorrow. "There is no humour in heaven," he reckoned. He'd have nursed a pint or two with Lee at the drop of a hat.
All hope. Lost. Only not. Because M O N E Y deal in the fragmentary, a nuanced, ever-shifting dance that skips lightly around the blocky absolutes. They explore and they shade the primal drudge of what it is to be human. They acknowledge hope but they get there via something altogether more fulfilling - certainly for the listener - than mere world weary cynicism: that title might speak of condemnation but The Shadow of Heaven reads like a benediction. It's difficult to recall when last a band dared to venture out so alone, so open-eyed and so open to the possibility that we might not be doomed after all without sounding like empty-headed fools.
On one level, TSOH is all about mood and tone. But this is no cheap, cheaply artful production piece. Rest assured, it's not an Indie Album and M O N E Y are not an Indie Band. Its startling opening, the skittering ‘So Long (God is Dead)’, begins as chill hymnal, Lee’s voice alone and bare. It’s the voice that best identifies them at this stage with its impossible range and Lee’s ability (and propensity) to leap from chorister dramatics, scaling impossible highs, to a low-slung, raggedy burr.
The Editor, immune to the usual trumpeting, offers the usual caution: “Please tell me they don’t sound like Strangelove or Marion.” They don’t. They also don’t sound anything at all like Elbow, though you suspect lazy column fillers will tick the boxes marked ‘stately’ and ‘ethereal’ and draw the wrong conclusions entirely. They might, particularly on the rippling, almost formless ‘Bluebell Fields’, sound a little like The Verve. And throughout, against a backdrop of beautifully arranged harmonics, a properly generous ‘sound’ that almost seems to push the instruments (guitars, bass, drums, piano, little more) back into the mix so far it’s difficult to pick out just one, they call to mind Talk Talk circa Spirit of Eden. Every now and then, Lee’s tone is so clean and he sings with such freedom, he puts you in mind of Thom Yorke; or he’ll let a note linger in the throat and he sounds like a young Ian McCulloch. But, ultimately, M O N E Y sound an awful lot like M O N E Y.
Prod for weak spots: there are a couple. 'Hold Me Forever', once you've developed a taste for the more off-kilter, less graspable moments, is a bit upfront. On its side is a desperate, flailing candour but its soaring hook is a bit 'Bed Shaped'. Is that a bad thing? Probably not. Do M O N E Y connect more deeply, more intimately, when they spin out a trail behind them, make the listener work that little bit harder? Most definitely. ‘Goodnight London’, a maudlin lullaby that recalls “all the boys I’ve ever loved”, with just Lee and the piano, clocks in at seven minutes and many will fall deeply for it, no doubt, but it slams brakes on the growing momentum early on.
But the highlights are unforgettable and connect deeply, deeply in a way that sees you drifting into key phrases – both musically and lyrically – throughout your day, a line evocative enough to feather its way into the byways of your subconscious and light enough to lodge there for an age before you scratch your head and go ‘Oh! What’s that?’ If ‘So Long (God is Dead)’ is more playful than preachy (“It’s a shame that God is dead, but he could come back…”), the album starts to develop a more ominous tone. ‘Who’s Going to Love You Now?’ flirts with that chant from Arcade Fire’s ‘Wake Up’ before pulling the rug.
‘Letter to Yesterday’ plugs in to something altogether gutsier: throbbing bass and electric guitar. Lee’s words twist and fly: “I sent a letter to yesterday / It told you everything would be alright…” You don’t believe a word. Later: “You’re my midnight sky / I curse myself for such a fragile frame”. Here’s devotion, naked, but soured by the weight of truth. ‘Cold Water’ is harder to grasp (“Cold water…it’s running out…falling from the tall buildings…”) but no less physical. M O N E Y manage the twin thrills of quiet and loud with disarming guile. But they close on a whisper, almost. ‘Black’ is, again, Jamie Lee and piano but here he’s grounded and (mostly?) avoids the cover of metaphor. Its most startling lines (“kids are fucking in cars…”, “red blood on the tracks…") will secure the headlines, but it’s the opening couplet that suggests Lee knows something about language, that he should dare to be expressionist and free. “Black is the first and last colour of the scheme / The crooked line, the hollow scene,” he sings, and the world closes in.
Aided by a vision that feels distinct and authoritative (and in Jamie Lee you hope we might finally have found a pop star in the truest sense, one whose charisma is a by-product of the size of his intellect and his soul, rather than his mouth), it sneaks up on you, this almighty record. Its unyielding faith, its devastating belief (in you, me, and most definitely itself) and its thrusting search for something other than this, highlights its million contradictions and it nearly becomes what it seeks to avoid, or, at the very least, question. But fear not. The shadow of heaven is cast long, M O N E Y seem to say, but we’re fools if we falter and settle for the comfort of the dark. A paradox, then, built on devilment and yet littered with articles of faith.