Scritti Politti - Cupid & Psyche 85
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Scritti Politti opened my ears to the avant-garde in music. It’s true—were it not for Green Gartside, I may have never picked up an issue of The Wire, a Steve Reich record, nor a compilation of dub. I wouldn’t understand Grace Jones the way I do (arguing Grace’s place in the avant-garde tradition is a topic for another time). Lee Perry might fall on (my) deaf ears. Bill Laswell would be anathema to me. And I’m not talking about “Skank Bloc Bologna,” either—it’s all thanks to four little bonus tracks on the cassette (and CD) issue of Cupid & Psyche 85.
As a teenager, I was a serial record-club member, and excitedly ordered C&S85; when it landed in the pages of the Columbia House catalog. My thinking went, I lovelovelove “Perfect Way,” so I bet I’ll love the rest, too. I certainly did, but was I in for a surprise. This was not strictly the wall-to-wall glossy, intelligent pop I was expecting, for tacked on to the b-side of my cassette were four bonus tracks, listed on the cover as “4 extra tracks: Wood Beez, Absolute, Hypnotize (Versions) + Flesh & Blood.” What in the world were “versions,” I wondered? They must be remixes of some sort; those I was already learning (mostly just extended versions, such as the 10-minute-plus jam Prince and the Revolution took through that year’s “Mountains”).
Well, they were remixes of a sort. I later learned, of course, that when a song is referred to as a “version,” it’s generally a dub take on the original song, occasionally with added elements (most likely toasting—and remember when that word seemed quaint?). Interestingly, the only one of these four extras that includes toasting is the one not labeled as a “version,” “Flesh & Blood” (which I assume Green felt was enough of its own song, as opposed to a “version” of its source material, “The Word Girl,” to give it its own name), which features Ranking Ann on microphone duties. [She’s listed in the credits as the track’s “DJ.” Again, how quaint, eh?] But what a version it, in fact, is.
In its original incarnation, “The Word Girl” opens C&S85; with a light, loping feel. It’s got a nearly reggae feel to it as is (lovers rock, really), with a spare production, allowing Green’s vocals to breathe and take precedence. The primary instrument here (apart from Green’s voice, that is) is David Gamson’s keyboards, which get increasingly evocative as the song goes on. Check out that first ascending chord, that lean, at the 2:37 mark. It’s repeated, in various variations, every 15 seconds through the end of “The Word Girl,” as Green’s vocals are reduced, eventually, to just his breathy “oh, how”s, there just as a counterpoint for the keyboards (and occasional stabs of guitar). And then listen to the way the song ends, the elements seeming to start to fall apart only to start to reconstruct themselves again, only to come to a sudden halt at 4:24—and it’s over. Pop genius.
“Flesh & Blood” opens differently, stripped to just its drum track backing Ranking Ann for the song’s first 15 seconds. As the rest of the instrumentation comes in, it sounds sparer, more arid than “The Word Girl,” as if put through an echo chamber, or at the very least dampened with a bit of reverb. When the chorus (such as it is) kicks in at 0:47, so do Gamson’s keyb washes, brightening the song considerably—but when we return to the verses, the aridness returns. This certainly isn’t dub in a Mad Professor sense, but it’s dub nonetheless. And it ends in just the same way as its parent song.
The album’s penultimate song for me has always been “Absolute (Version),” which I rewound parts of so often as a teenager that my cassette of C&S85; snapped (I just ordered a replacement from Columbia House). More than any other portion of the song, I rewound over and over the chunk starting at 3:40, what to most might sound like just a series of keyboard chords, nothing too exciting. But it seemed to come so suddenly, without any warning, this gorgeous, rich tonal progression. It’s so shiny, so gleaming-in-the-sunlight, a convertible on a hot day. That series of chords comes back at the 4:38 mark, to back up some lusciously layered vocals, and does so perfectly. From there, “Absolute (Version)” loops its “love you” backing vocals ad infinitum to the song’s end, nothing so special. But those chords, those singular chords!
“Wood Beez” starts out almost shockingly, with a very tribal, almost Siouxsie-esque drum tattoo punctuated by a jab of high-pitched keybs, before becoming a much more Scritti track at 0:10. In its “Version,” however, this one’s much more about what’s not there than what is. This is music, as dub often is, just as much about the spaces in between the notes as the notes actually played—and in some cases, moreso. “Wood Beez (Version)” is at points very percussion-heavy, letting the beats and little else do the talking. Vocal sounds are sampled, layered, repeated (remember, this was 1985; technology still had its limits), and that chiming guitar riff replays over and over. Most of Green’s vocals still show up here, but they’re recontextualized by the new arrangement of this “Version.”
“Hypnotize (Version)” isn’t so much special, frankly, and it’s a disappointing end to the album. But let’s not forget C&S85;’s original nine tracks. Besides the aforementioned quartet, there’s the nearly perfect pop single that is “Perfect Way,” which spent 13 weeks in the U.S. top 40, peaking at #11, even with a first verse including the line “You gotta conscience compassion you got away with the word / You gotta heartful of complacency too” (utterly inexplicable—songs this brainy-smart, let alone just clever-smart, aren’t supposed to verge on being top 10 hits in America!). That’s just one example of Green’s all-too-smart (for many, in either sense of the term) lyrics tossed across this album like so many croutons on a salad (but they’re not really—they’re placed just so, and that’s kinda the point).
Scritti Politti—really, Green Gartside and whoever else. I mean, really—seemed to be all about cool composure, an easy remove, all glossy surfaces and literary references in the lyrics. But that doesn’t, and can’t, account for the dub takes they added to Cupid & Psyche 85 (and that title! I’ve not even addressed that!). Call it typical English subversion if you want, and maybe you’re right, in part at least. But most importantly, this is no easy-peasy kind of record. This record challenges. It surprises. It affects my listening to this day, and if you give it a go, it might affect yours, too.