Written by: David Porter
One of Scotland’s Great Gentlemen of Song Navigates the Hammered Heart
If you are of a certain age and reside in the Western world, chances are a number of Del Amitri songs pepper the soundtrack to your romantic history. Justin Currie, the band’s songwriter, vocalist and bassist, released his first solo album, What Is Love For, this past October.
It was the triad of Waking Hours, Change Everything and Twisted, released in 1989, 1992 and 1995, respectively, that landed Del Amitri on the shores of the pop world, particularly the singles “Kiss This Thing Goodbye” from Waking Hours and “Roll To Me” from Twisted. Always an anomaly in pop music, Del Amitri eschewed keyboards in the Eighties and recorded restrained power-pop anthems throughout the band’s career that drew from the Beatles, Jackson Browne, early Seventies Rod Stewart, particularly Never A Dull Moment and Every Picture Tells a Story, and late-Seventies Rolling Stones, particularly Some Girls. The band had an affinity for American Country, and they swirled its flavor through many of their muscular, plangent pop confections. Del Amitri’s closest counterpart here in the States might have been the Gin Blossoms, whose booze-soaked tribute to Big Star, New Miserable Experience, from 1992, is still one of the best albums of the same period and perhaps the closest American record, in sound and spirit, to Del Amitri’s jangling tales of shipwrecked love affairs and crow’s nest yearning; a list of the band’s current inheritors might include Minibar and the Thrills.
“Nobody knew if we were a rock or pop band,” Currie told the New York Daily News in November of 2007. “Maybe we weren’t very sure, either.” After 2002’s Can You Do Me Good? the band packed it in. “We’d been trying to get off the label (A&M) for the previous four years. It took that long to make the last record because the company kept rejecting songs.”
What Is Love For is rife with the ardor and crack craftsmanship Currie and his accomplices brought to six albums. The record sounds lush and spare at the same time, a feat one associates with Burt Bacharach, Nick Drake and early R.E.M. An album about the failure of romance and the aftermath of some of its particular failures, What Is Love For is evocative of Aimee Mann’s recent work, particularly Lost In Space, the Pernice Brothers’ Overcome by Happiness, Joe Pernice’s Chappaquiddick Skyline, and some of the ballads on Everything But the Girl’s Amplified Heart. This is adult contemporary music in the truest sense of the description, a map of the brittle end.
“I think that these songs represent the end of my youth,” Currie says. “I wanted to allow my world-weariness to roam unchecked. And I wanted to be straight about love – about how I can’t explain it, control it, or figure it out.”
In its conception and execution, What Is Love For is reminiscent of Painted From Memory, Elvis Costello’s 1998 record with Burt Bacharach, in the craftsmanship endemic to its songs and in the strain and urgency of Currie’s vocals (and in Currie’s break from the dense, propulsive pop of Del Amitri). Just as Painted From Memory features some of Costello’s finest singing, Currie beautifully matches the emotional demands of his new songs, and his voice, always one of the more salient and inviting elements of Del Amitri’s music, is the centerpiece of the album, particularly on spare piano ballads like “If I Ever Loved You,” the album’s “Jealous Guy,” and “In The Rain,” its final track.
The strings on the title song sound as if they were imported entirely from Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic,” from Songs in the Key of Life, and they underline Currie’s urgent vocal. “Walking Through You,” one of the album’s many gems, lifts its bass line and percussion from Sly Stone’s “Family Affair,” while the saxophone that punctuates “Not So Sentimental Now” and “Something in That Mess” recalls the Waterboys prior to Fisherman’s Blues. The album’s overall effect is that of jazz vocal and pop records from the Fifties and Sixties: it’s Currie’s version of In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, a Sergio Mendes & Brasil ‘66 album stripped of its jet set sunniness.
Love’s disappointments and their accompanying ghosts float through the record. “Only love makes killing time so cruel,” Currie sings on “Only Love” – “the hours come, and you drag them ‘round with you/when she is gone/the whole hangdog house aches/and you hum along to the sound of heartbreaks/you think you hear in every song.” What Is Love For is a weather map of the vestiges of exhausted, desiccated relationships and their travels: “Lovers leave their traces, like jets across the sky/they find in all those faces/lines they recognize.” On “Walking Through You,” Currie sings, “In the evening/when you’re blue/you will feel me/walking through you/when you’re crying/that’s my cue…”
What do we talk about when we talk about love? Rilke writes in Letters to a Young Poet: “…that something is difficult must be a reason the more for us to do it. To love is good, too: love being difficult. For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.” What Is Love For is an album concerned with the failure of Rilke’s difficult task, a dive into the wreck.
Describing What Is Love For, Currie says, “…it’s ostensibly bleak, but underneath, there’s a Morse code melody that’s telling you something else. It’s my Scottish romanticism, heavily clothed in a shrug or resignation. The Scots believe that life is pitiless and harsh, but that deep inside us all there’s a churning sea of desire and optimism that’s usually suppressed by drink, stoicism and bravado.”