Graham Coxon - The Spinning Top (2009)

Graham Coxon can play guitar. Graham Coxon can play guitar better than just about anyone. Graham Coxon is the Johnny Marr of the 90s. These are facts that you could almost forget on his last release, the perfectly fine Love Travels at Illegal Speeds, where Coxon hid his technical virtuosity behind power chords and straight-ahead mod-punk structures. Or further back in his solo career, when he hid behind extreme lo-fi textures. Even as a member of Blur, he often seemed somewhat uncomfortable with his obvious gift for blowing a song wide open with surprising harmonies and carefully-controlled, overdriven dissonance.

Now, listen to “Sorrow’s Army”, lead single from upcoming LP The Spinning Top. You can’t play that finger-picking pattern. No one you know can play the rest of this album either- even your mate Larry from that high school band we all loved, the one who could play a flaming guitar with his teeth. Next to Graham Coxon, Larry is shit*. At 2:15 on “If You Want Me”, when the classic Gra telecaster kicks in, you will throw your head back on the train seat and punch the sky. This is the man’s best playing since 13. Those of you who thought he needed Albarn for contrast (myself included) were dead wrong (however much we did a similar air-punching manoeuvre when the Blur reunion was announced). It seems any minor collaboration suits him fine- the on-key backing vocals occasionally scattered throughout the album giving him all the melodic assistance his unconventional voice needs (this will be the last Blur reference, promise, but some of the backing on “Humble Man” sounds uncannily like Damon).

Aside from the occasional flashes of distortion, however, this is a mostly acoustic set- preferring organs, piano and off-kilter percussion for accent to fender squawks and choppy muted strums. As the relatively subdued cover art suggests, Coxon clearly isn’t aiming for the schizophrenic immediacy of his last two rather-successful albums, and The Spinning Top sets into a pleasingly contemplative groove quite early on. There are heart-stopping moments, certainly, particularly on the chilling “Dead Bees” and the crushing “Tripping Over”, but they are less obvious than on Illegal Speeds. This works in the album’s favour, a central life-arc helps ground things while giving our man the space he needs to go all over the place and philosophise about those stalwart companions he finds in life, love and loss (without the need to make us uncomfortable with his recent tales of bathroom handjobs). The most obvious reference points here are Nick Drake and Syd Barrett- although the concept is more like a sick fusion of Lou Reed’s Berlin and Arthur or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire by Coxon’s beloved Kinks.

An album is not overlong if it has 15 tracks. Blur’s classic Parklife had 16, after all (okay, so it wasn’t the last Blur reference- shoot me). Sometimes, 12 tracks can be too many (I’m looking your way, Alex Kapranos). An album is overlong if there are two or three unremarkable songs, if you want to turn it off halfway through or skip to the last track. The Spinning Top is not overlong- if I had done a song-by-song breakdown, I’d have something to say about every track here.

If you haven’t been waiting for this album, if this is the first you’ve heard of it, then there is a chance that it will neither change your life nor convert you. Pick it up anyway, because you might learn something. The Spinning Top is a staggering artistic achievement, and Coxon’s best solo release to date.

*No offence meant, Larry- you are a great guitarist and a really cool guy.

92
(86 - AI, 85 - SM)
Combined Rating = 87.6

2 comments:

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