When reviewing the new album by an artist with a lengthy, if under-exposed, body of work behind them, it’s not always helpful to start by banging on about what they were doing thirty-odd years ago. In this case however, it seems relevant. William D Drake was once a member of Cardiacs, having been co-opted into the band by leader Tim Smith in 1983, shortly after the release of their debut album. Over the next decade – until his departure in 1992 – Drake was to become arguably the second most important contributor to Cardiacs music after Smith himself, his songwriting and his prodigious skills as a pianist and arranger helping to define the Cardiacs sound – complex, eccentric, absurdist, indebted to prog, psychedelia and whimsical English art-rock when such behaviour was far from fashionable – during their high-water years of the mid-to-late eighties.
During that time Cardiacs seemed like the ultimate cult band; attracting a large and loyal following, yet rarely mentioned in the music press of the day, and then only in terms of patronising disparagement. Their mix of surrealism, theatricality and complex, challenging musical constructions probably turned ten people against them for every one who swore allegiance for life. But, by the mid-nineties, bands like Blur and Supergrass had smoothed the considerable rough edges off the band’s trademark sound and had managed to turn it into commercial mainstream pop – something Blur at least acknowledged when they invited Cardiacs to support them at Mile End Stadium in 1995.
By then of course, Bill Drake was gone, to spend the nineties wending his way through a curious collection of unsung outfits, many featuring old Cardiacs colleagues. He continued to make guest appearances with the band, and remained one third of the Sea Nymphs, AKA Mr and Mrs Smith and Mr Drake. And it was Tim Smith who convinced him to record and release his first, self-titled solo album, a collection of stirring, beautiful-sad piano songs, in 2003. After spending the intervening years as a member of North Sea Radio Orchestra (with whom he still performs), 2007 saw not one, but two follow-ups: Briny Hooves added greater use of orchestration and band arrangements to Drake’s songs, while Yew’s Paw was an assured collection of classical piano instrumental pieces. Even those who were never drawn towards Cardiacs’ frenetic brand of prog-punk couldn’t fail to be impressed by the stately grandeur of Drake’s mature work.
So why dredge up the past now? Two reasons. One is that over the past year or so, Cardiacs’ reputation seems to be undergoing a reappraisal, with statements about how wonderful and influential they were erupting with increasing regularity in the mainstream press like geysers. The sad thing is that this reassessment has happened in the wake of Tim Smith’s debilitating heart attack and two consecutive strokes in the summer of 2008, which left him largely paralysed and unable to speak. At the end of last year a fund-raising tribute album on Believers Roast, Leader of the Starry Skies, raised the band’s profile still further. Needless to say, William D Drake was among the contributors.
Second reason: more than any of his other solo releases, The Rising of the Lights harks back to Drake’s time in Cardiacs musically while being inevitably informed by the grim reality of Tim Smith’s present condition. A natural successor to Briny Hooves in being a collection of lushly arranged, complex yet accessible piano songs, it also opens with two songs Drake wrote for the next, never-to-be-completed Sea Nymphs album. ‘Super Altar’ is distinctly Cardiacs-like: jaunty and upbeat, it barrels along like something Syd Barrett might have written if he’d joined ELO, while ‘Ant Trees’ recalls Drake’s long-ago adventures on the big ship Cardiacs lyrically as well as musically, albeit refracted through the work of Lewis Carroll: “Please remind me of the time that we were so divine, at the gates of dawn, a chessboard on the lawn… setting sail to hunt the snark, we thought it such a lark.”
Another song which feels almost like a direct tribute to Tim Smith is ‘Ornamental Hermit’, a cracked lament which opens with Drake confessing, “Of all the things you did for me, the one most splendid was to christen a place in me where I can be a most contented person.” One of the album’s highlights, it sounds like Peter Hammill riding a wheezing, broken-down carousel in a forever out-of-season, closed-up English seaside town, genuinely moving, odd and original. So too is the sorrowful ballad ‘In an Ideal World’, a comforting lullaby undercut by the knowledge that the world remains far from ideal, the swooning melody diving for hidden pearls on the dark sea bed.
If there’s a criticism to make, it’s that occasionally Drake’s precocity impresses rather than moves. The rustic Zappa-isms of ‘Mastodon’ or the light-operatic Captain Pugwash of ‘Ziegler’ leave me cold, while anyone who failed to succumb to Cardiacs’ sometimes oblique charms will probably not warm to the way ‘Wholly Holey’ swings jauntily from off-kilter knees-up to jazz-rock whimsy and back again, which is a shame, as the fidgety bombast conceals a touching meditation on the nature of love, and the album is a whole is rich in emotional and melodic generosity.
All is surely forgiven however for the glorious ‘Me Fish Bring’, which proves that Drake is best when he plays it almost straight, the faint surrealism of the title phrase/chorus actually providing an enriching oddness, conveying mysterious meaning and unnerving emotion in a way that familiar clichéd phrases can no longer do. Melancholy yet ultimately uplifting, this waltz-time piano ballad is deep and powerful, with a tidal pull to its movements. A haunting clarinet line counterpoints this celebration of life in the very shadow of death, providing healing balm for the soul. This song alone would make the album worthwhile, like discovering a wonderful oasis of breathtaking calm and beauty in the midst of a long jungle trek, all struggle and mosquito bites.
Drake found the phrase “the rising of the lights” in a Victorian medical journal. It’s generally believed to refer to a condition where the lungs or windpipe are obstructed, causing difficulty in breathing. Although Drake borrowed the term simply because he liked the sound of it, this is nevertheless an album about the struggle to live, to love, to express oneself and to find happiness in spite of the obstructions the world places in one’s path. For Drake it’s been a long, strange journey, from the early days of Cardiacs to the unexpected, bittersweet present. But whether you were along for the ride or not, this album contains songs to illuminate your life.
Quietus June 15th, 2011