Adventurousness Unbound – “The Fall and Rise of Hugh Cornwell”

Hugh Cornwell
The Fall and Rise of Hugh Cornwell
Invisible Hands Music

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When considering founder member Hugh Cornwell’s departure from the Stranglers in 1990, it’s instructive to go back to his first solo effort Wolf, released in ’88 while still in the band. Freed from the dark, dank expectations – strictures, one might say – of the Guildford-born band’s fanbase (“Golden Brown” aside), the singer-guitarist turned his considerable attentions toward a wider palette, one that made retrospective sense of that unexpectedly sedate single parenthetically mentioned above. Held in that contrasting light, the two tracks from Wolf included here – “Break of Dawn” and “Getting Involved” – draw decidedly un-punk parallels with two preceding artists – Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton – that also veered quite sharply off the path that had originally made them famous. I’ll not press that tortured comparison any further but regardless, Cornwell’s output post-Stranglers has allowed the man to explore stylistic corners that one imagines might have been closed off to him had he stayed.

Indeed, the arc of his solo career, as essayed across this collection, has been marked by nothing if not an adventurousness unbound by giving the slightest goddamn about what anyone might think. The only unifying impetus, it would seem, has been the pursuit of a good tune, as well it should be. Thus, as we circle and twist pentimento-style through the first six studio albums (two tracks from each; only 2013’s Steve Albini-produced Totem and Taboo goes unrepresented), flavors and intimations flow freely from all sides before being absorbed and distilled into a distinctly Cornwellian brand of mature, AOR-tinged rock that has no qualms about leaning blatantly toward the charts or, for that matter, giving them a vigorous two-fingered salute.

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[photo Neil O’Brien Entertainment]

Leading off with the inference-heavy “Leave Me Alone” off 2000’s Hi-Fi – one could conjecture any number of targets those three words might be directed at – that sports a vocal amidst its otherwise muscular rollick that’s slyly Lennonesque, we then slip seamlessly through Hooverdam‘s deceptively simplistic, utterly catching “Beat of My Heart” from 2000 with its Brill Building pop smarts and easy swing, to the sinewy “Hot Cat on a Tin Roof” from 1993’s Wired that coincidentally reminds of Bowie’s Carlos Alomar-saturated period around the time of “Cat People” to the late-night soul feel of “Break of Dawn” that conjures the  mixing desk of Willie Mitchell, such is its Hi Records groove. Though not immune to a residual Strangler-ism or two – “Please Don’t Put Me on a Slow Boat to Trowbridge” pulls at the so-called glory days with a gruffly added power-pop sheen – the fact is, on the strength of the evidence offered here, Cornwell has, over the last quarter century, presented to the world the face of a far more renaissance figure, one whose musical curiosities span the gamut of the western pop sensibility.

From “One Burning Desire”‘s soaring Byrdsian fillips taken from 1997’s Guilty (the companion track of which, “Long Dead Train,” has a Lee Hazlewood-produced-by-Nick Lowe feel to it) to the way “Getting Involved,” with its synthy splashes of oriental tints and incipient clubby beat, implies a Talk Talk DNA that manages to overcome, as that band ultimately did, the taint of those mid-80’s echoed drum effects, to the eternally lovely “Cadiz” whose warm exoticism underscores the ‘elysian’ part of Beyond Elysian Fields, the 2004 album from whence it comes, Cornwell proves a master of the restless spectrum he’s chosen as his own. Which isn’t to suggest he’s always had need of a passport to find inspiration. Twice on The Fall and Rise of… the guy stays decidedly native, the melancholy joy of “Under Her Spell” (also from Elysian) that’s pop-drunk on its own wry in a way that wouldn’t have felt out of place on Arthur, then again on Hi-Fi‘s emotive paean to self-reflection “Lay Back On Me Pal” where the Zombies’ baroque reflexes are put in play with enough finesse to be truly worthy of an Odessey and Oracle comparison.

Rounding out the collection is an ebullient new track “Live It and Breathe It” that rather neatly synthesizes much of what’s come before, pushed along by a Stranglers-like drive with a touch of a fatalistic Davies in the lyric, a new wave panache in its bridge and a guitar break with that archetypal dueling rock’n’roller-ness as once practiced by Edmunds and Bremner in the peak Rockpile years. It’s a banger of a track that, beyond its eminent listenability and valedictory message, proves Mr Cornwell still strides forcefully among us with no notion of surcease – or a ticket for a boat of any speed to Trowbridge – anywhere on the horizon, and glory be to that.