Never, Never Land
o. Unkle’s second album. There’s a fair amount of conceptual ground that needs to be cleared before the review proper can happen, so let’s get started:
Psyence Fiction was neither genius nor disaster. It was uneven, yes, sounding at times more like a mix than an album, but many of the high profile guests turned in stellar songs (Badly Drawn Boy and Thom Yorke in particular), and there was a definite level of craft that elevated the whole thing above what it could have been. Full disclosure: unlike 99% of the western world, I like ‘Lonely Soul’.
Unkle was/is not a DJ Shadow side project. This was significantly harder to tell on the debut than here, true, but the reason the first record provoked such heated reactions is precisely because it doesn’t sound like Shadow’s day job. Maybe this was because of all the guest musicians, but maybe, just maybe, James Lavelle was doing more than sitting around the studio smoking up.
The Unkle of this record are not the Unkle of Psyence Fiction. Instead of DJ Shadow, we have Richard File. I’d never heard of him either.
Lastly, and most pertinently: Your opinion of this record will likely have very little to do with what you thought of Psyence Fiction, unless you approach Never, Never, Land with blinders on. It’s a completely different beast and if you expect it to be Psyence Fiction II, you are doomed to disappointment.
So, what kind of record are we dealing with here? The guest list is still packed: Josh Homme, Ian Brown, Brian Eno, Mani, Jarvis Cocker, 3D, Joel Cadbury (of South) and via sampling the Temptations, Joy Division and Scott Walker. But unlike last time, this Unkle record has a distinctive voice. Lavelle, File and producer Antony Genn wrote every song here, some with guest assistance, some not. And File sings lead on four songs (out of the nine non-introduction, non instrumental tracks here).
What we wind up with is not a doomy trip-hop soundscape with new styles shoehorned into every track. What we have is songwriting. Tunes. File’s two best performances, ‘In A State’ and ‘What Are You To Me?’ pack the sweet thump of good love songs, and Cadbury’s ‘Glow’ is a fragile revelation. Things do get dark at times, of course; the Temptations-sampling ‘Eye For An Eye’ is almost impossibly cinematic, Homme’s ‘Safe In Mind (Please Get That Gun From Out My Face)’ thrashes and roars like a bear in a trap, and the muted alienation of 3D’s ‘Invasion’ could have easily fit on the superb 100th Window album. In fact, all of the songs here are strong, with the sole exception being the inessential instrumental ‘I Need Something Stronger’.
There are still trapping of the overtly guest-based, more “electronica” style of the first album, but Never, Never, Land exposes Lavelle and File as, surprisingly, excellent songwriters with an ear for a good chorus and a knack to fitting performers and material together; anyone other than Ian Brown singing ‘Reign’, for example, would be disaster (“I am the rain/rain rain rain all day“ indeed), but Brown gives it a certain deranged majesty. The whole thing is slathered in strings (Scott Walker’s, in the case of ‘Reign’) and has a larger-than-life sound that begs for headphones. On them, it sounds like the world-beating epic it wants to be, from the obligatory portentous introduction to the longer, concluding piece ‘Inside’. All File has to offer there as insight is “You don’t want to see inside of me”, but for a record that mixes personal and political fears of apocalypse like Never, Never, Land, it’s a fitting end.
Never, Never, Land got buried under a storm of bad press and general indifference when it came out late last year, but it (and Lavelle and File’s work) deserves better. This is the kind of record that, a few decades from now, people will be pulling out as unjustly overlooked buried treasure.