No-Man – Lost Songs, Vol. 1

Recorded 1991-1997
Released July 2001

Hello, my name is Ted (hiiii Teeeed) and after three albums and God only knows how many EPs, singles, and compilations I still have no idea what it is I want out of No-Man.

It’s pretty well established at this point that thus far there’s been a particular tension between No-Man’s natural, ambient side and their synthetic, electronic side. Up to and through Loveblows and Lovecries, I had a clear preference for the electronic elements of their music, on the grounds that the ambient stuff was easier to screw up. Then, following a marathon listen of all their studio albums, I decided I actually preferred the ambient stuff, because they actually did knock it out of the park in Flowermouth and Together We’re Stranger. This would persist through the Wild Opera era, even to the point that I would declare that what I want out of No-Man is Together We’re Stranger rereleased ad infinitum. This would continue right up until last week, where I said the electronic bits of Dry Cleaning Ray worked because they tried to do something different with them. This when I had completely missed a more fundamental realization: the electronic bits were actually working again at all.

And…oh yes. The one song I couldn’t find off of Heaven Taste, the 1995 update of Bleed. During the course of writing this review, I found it, and holy crap, they made it work. It’s dark and ominous and unsettling in all the best ways, all taut and tense for the first five minutes before exploding into this furious, absolutely brutal wall of sound that’s the closest these guys will probably ever come to straight-up harsh noise. This new version of Bleed is one of the best songs No-Man have ever written, and it’s composed entirely of stuff I thought I hated about their sound.

And then I come to this compilation of castoffs and demos, and my understanding of what No-Man is and should be is thrown into the air again.

As befits a collection of castoffs and demos, this album is an eclectic survey of every conceivable side of No-Man’s musical personality, and if any of my assumptions about what they were good at held water, I’d be able to tell pretty easily which songs would be good and which wouldn’t. But instead it turns out pretty much everything here is consistently excellent.

Some highlights. Samaritan Snare, which basically does the Dry Cleaning Ray bluesy noir schtick but with added Theo Travis. The version of Soft Shoulder dusted off here, yet another reason I’m just straight-up confused about what I want out of No-Man because here they took the weakest point of that song and not only placed it front and center but actually made it work. Amateurwahwah, with its simple yet powerful keyboards and booming drums that could almost have been recorded by John Bonham himself. The closing track, Coming Through Slaughter, which sounds like No-Man coming into contact with a chunk of Hand. Cannot. Erase. that broke off and drifted about twenty years into the past.

Now for the highlights featuring Wilson in more than the usual capacity: All The Reasons is generic No-Man, yes, but it’s especially well-done generic No-Man, and it’s got Wilson on backing vocals. Never mind that he’s just going “maybe in time~” or something like that and it’s buried relatively far back in the mix, it’s still amazing. Likewise, Love Among the White Trash, which is probably the closest thing these two irreligious men will ever get to writing a gospel song. Paradub is a little something Wilson seems to have banged out during an improvisational session and it sounds great.

I could go on. But ultimately, there is not a dud amongst these songs. Not one. This was kind of surprising to me considering it’s (a) No-Man, a chunk of Wilson’s musical history that only becomes more opaque the deeper I dive into it, and (b) it’s a castoff album. These are not songs that are supposed to be good. Wilson’s own reflection on recording these songs sound like he was trying to turn a turd into a hamburger but was only partially successful. And yet, here we are.

But there is some solace to be found here. Throughout much of the 90s No-Man was pinging between trip hop and synthpop and art rock and dream pop, caught between the zeitgeist, a residual concern of the One Little Indian days bubbling up even now, and their own understanding of what would be meaningful music. A truly definite No-Man “sound” would not fully coalesce until Returning Jesus, four years later. So while I may not know what I want out of No-Man anymore, it’s somewhat heartening to know that No-Man really didn’t, either.

No-Man – Speak

Recorded 1989-1991, remixed and released 1999

As the recording information makes clear, this album exists in two places at once, chronologically. The original recordings of all these songs were done in in the late 80s and early 90s, and released on cassette tapes that are no longer readily available. Then, almost ten years later, Wilson and Bowness dusted off all those old songs, remixed and rerecorded them, and released them in their current forms. Nevertheless, enough of the material on this record dates back to the early 90s that I’m comfortable covering it now.

Ambient music is a deceptively tricky beast. Done right it can be contemplative, expansive, even spiritual; something that’s able to crystallize broad swathes of emotion and experience into a few notes, washes, and textures. Done wrong it can be a dull and lifeless chore to sit through, made even worse by this feeling that we should be feeling something in this moment but aren’t. There’s not a lot of room between the two. Some of the tracks on Speak do manage to reach those sorts of heights, but as the album goes on, most of them collapse into a vaguely pink taffy mush.

For instance, the title track, first song off the album. The violin, the singing, and the bass (especially the bass), all lovely. Or Pink Moon, the Nick Drake cover, which switches out the acoustic guitar for something more meditative, and chops up and reverses the original’s piano bits and sends them gently floating down to earth, like snow. It’s also a minute longer, allowing the ambient swells to take center stage and nudge the song forward. Thing is, those are the only two songs I’d unambiguously recommend off this album.

Songs like Iris Murdoch Cut Me Down, though, don’t work quite as well. In that one, for instance, the instrumentation doesn’t really go anywhere, and the vocals sound like they came from a completely different song. Curtain Dream seems half-finished (ironic, considering that was one of the ones completely re-recorded in ‘99). The instrumentation in River Song is identical to the original, with the same ominously pastoral atmosphere, but the No-Man vocals don’t have the same punches and harmonies that Donovan’s do. The Ballet Beast is just kind of…there. Death and Dodgson’s Dreamchild doesn’t cohere at all.

I get what No-Man are going for here. This is supposed to be a record that documents small, quiet moments both positive and negative. And many of the songs do have moments that capture that sort of feeling. For instance: the harmonica in Heaven’s Break; the violin in French Free Terror Suspect, and Night Sky Sweet Earth (god bless Ben Coleman); and the piano in Riverrun and Life With Picasso. But those are all moments. Otherwise, much of Speak seems oddly half-finished, like they were a collection of sketches more than actual songs (which would have been fine if that’s how it was advertised), and pale especially in comparison to the more developed stuff they’d release later on.