ou’re a better man than I am, Edwyn Collins.
After the fizzling end of Orange Juice, I’m sure I would have hung it up. When the hotly tipped pioneering “Sound Of Young Scotland” band left archetypal indie imprint Postcard for the posh confines of corporate giant Polydor in 1981, Collins and company were accused of selling out. In response, their debut single for the major was a playful, painful cover of Al Green’s “L.O.V.E. Love” which featured a tortured sounding Collins trying to hit the high notes like an alley cat mewling on a fence. Blue-eyed soul, indeed. A smattering of U.K. chart hits followed, but the band never really fulfilled their great promise, the victim of apathy on the part of Polydor and the general record-buying public.
Following Orange Juice’s meteoric rise and subsequent fall, Collins issued just two solo albums in the next decade before finally topping charts worldwide with “A Girl Like You” in 1995. It was to be a one-hit wonder, of course, and now things were even worse than before—the spectre of Orange Juice and a global smash hit pressing down on him. The follow-up album (1997’s I’m Not Following You) found Collins at a major label (Epic) for the first time in years, but it was short-lived. The album was sonically adventurous but not exactly hit-laden, despite the fact that the single “The Magic Piper of Love” somehow found itself on the soundtrack to Austin Powers. The fact that he bothers to record at all these days is a testament to the drive, commitment, and soul that motors Collins. At what point does the rollercoaster ride stop being a thrill and simply make you sick to your stomach?
This resiliency has, depending on your point of view, either elegantly defined or crushingly hamstringed Collins throughout his career. He can easily be seen as either an enduring, endearing underground hero, or as a “coulda been a contender” who never lived up to his potential despite multiple chances at success. Whatever your view of Collins’ career trajectory to this point, however, there is no denying that Doctor Syntax is his strongest, most cohesive album to date.
Rife with the kind of cutting, witty lyrics and mutated soul that has become his calling card, Collins is in rare form throughout. Collins is running the show here, playing all instruments (apart from treatments and programming from engineer Sebastian Lawly and drums on two tracks from ex-Pistol Paul Cook) himself and producing, and he seems to be reveling in the freedom. The resultant sound is a somewhat lo-fi hybrid of electronica, soul, disco, and rock, with programmed beats and a wealth of other noises keeping things interesting. Add Collins’ trademark lyrical twists, turns, and barbs to the mix and you have a record that sounds a bit like what you would imagine Prince doing nowadays if he were a cranky 40-something Scot. (That’s a good thing, trust me.)
Topics and styles run rampant throughout the album, but the stripped down, almost charmingly low-tech production keeps it all together. From the achingly beautiful (and somewhat hilarious) career suicide note of “Splitting Up,” to the flamenco-styled “Johnny Teardrop,” to the funkified kazoos of “No Idea,” to the disco-lite of “20 Years Too Late” (perhaps a statement to his fan base who couldn't save Orange Juice?), Collins keeps it all balanced with aplomb. The album’s centerpiece and most striking track, however, is “The Beatles,” a mantra-like rant on Fabs fandom that’s equal parts hero worship and grave-pissing. In typically perverse Collins fashion (and perhaps in homage to the band themselves), it was released as a single on 7” only. Atta boy, Edwyn!
Of course none of this is going to make a bit of difference in the grand scheme of things, as the album was first released in 2002 to no fanfare at all in the UK (save some decent reviews) and has taken a full year to reach the US at all (albeit with three bonus tracks, including the stellar “Message For Jojo,” the a-side of a joint single with ex-Suede guitarist and kindred spirit Bernard Butler). And chances are good that we won’t hear anything new from Collins for at least another year, maybe longer. But I tell you what, Edwyn, I’ll make you a deal: You keep making them, and I’ll keep buying them.