#31Songs (5): Soul, by The Blue Aeroplanes

#31Songs (5): Best closer on an album

‘Soul’, by The Blue Aeroplanes, from Tolerance (1986)

The Blue Aeroplanes’ first two studio albums, Bop Art and Tolerance, don’t contain their best work from this era.  The best from that era comes in the form of singles and EPs gathered together on the Friendloverplane album, and as I’ve already suggested, the album versions of ‘Gunning the Works’ and ‘Tolerance’ are not the best available.  But the Tolerance LP does contain perhaps the best closing track on any Aeroplanes album.  I like an album to have a shape, in terms of a changing mood as well as changes of tempo and style; and in particular I appreciate the power of a strong final song.  Some of this dates back to the days of vinyl: being so caught up in the final track that you can happily listen to the click of the run-out track, or the faint buzz of an automatically lifted needle, as you try to take in the last track and the album as a whole.

The appeal of ‘Soul’ from Tolerance lies in the music rather than the lyrics, though Gerard’s delivery is powerful in its intimate, under-the-breath quality.  The music, written by Richard Bell and Ruth Cochrane shortly before the album was recorded, balances a simple descending bassline and strummed guitar against wails of distorted and feeding-back guitars.  Bell recalls guitarist Nick Jacobs ‘lining the vocal booth with sheet metal and cranking his Marshall stack up to 11 (!) for the feedback’ (*).  Bell doesn’t mention The Jesus and Mary Chain, but the tension in the piece between melody and noise is reminiscent of what they were doing at the time: ‘Never Understand’ came out in February 1985 and Psychocandy was released in November of the same year.  I haven’t been able to find out exactly when Tolerance was recorded, but I suspect sufficiently late enough for the Mary Chain to be a source.  That said, the  reflective pace of ‘Soul’ and the more restrained position of its feedback in the mix make it a different proposition from ‘Never Understand.’ The overall effect is of a campfire song with terrible creatures howling in the woods; or of a confession by flickering candlelight as a storm rages outside.

The lyrics are cryptic, but if we take ‘Soul’ to be soul music, then certain things like the ‘white hands’ in ‘black gloves’ and the other contrasts of black and white start to fall into place, especially if one recognises the black roots of soul music: the lyrics seem to concern cultural appropriation. White hands in black gloves are involved in a kind of cultural masquerade.  There’s also an emphasis in the lyric on costume, especially of an aspirational sort: the black gloves, the black tuxedo, the white tie.  These costumes have the power to transform someone, from the shack-dweller to a celebrity in the limelight.  But towards the end there are notes of self doubt — ‘Can this be me?’ — made all the more powerful by Gerard’s delivery. The closing phrase ‘pleased to call it / Soul’ suggests that it might not really be soul anymore.  The images of tuxedo and white tie suggest that something has been commodified for the light entertainment market, and that in the process it has ceased to be truly ‘soul’.  Is his contemporaries’ swallowing of ‘the cultures’ another act of appropriation?  Is this a pun on ‘to swallow the culture’s soul’?  The subtle power of the music and the vocal performance persuade me to take the lyric seriously, but it’s oblique and abstract.

 

LYRICS (from lyrics.wikia.com)

Played by white hands
Tight in black gloves
Skinning it up
As hot as cool

Hit it, boy
It’s wild and trackless
Where the cats in black tux
are stepping

From the shacks
to the front of the street
It’s lovingly taken
by small devils

Yeah, the heart of the drama
Come out like grass
In drums

Jumped and jay walked
In New York
Clubbed and cake walked
Till Ladbroke Grove

Can this be me?
Growing up and growing old
To watch my contemporaries
Swallow the cultures whole

Swaying in white tie
Eyes trail from the white life
Swaying in the white tie
pleased to call it
Soul

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