Felt - Forever Breathes the Lonely Word

Forever Breathes the Lonely Word

Released 1986 on Creation
Reviewed by Robin Tripp, 17/03/2007ce

1. Rain of Crystal Spires (3:54)
2. Down but Not Yet Out (3:35)
3. September Lady (3:43)
4. Grey Streets (3:45)
5. All the People I Like Are Those That Are Dead (5:09)
6. Gather up Your Wings and Fly (3:53)
7. Wave Crashed on Rocks (2:51)
8. Hours of Darkness Have Changed My Mind (4:44)

All songs written by Lawrence.

Felt were one of the very first bands to emerge from that awkward sub-category of 80's pop music later dubbed "indie". A style of music that was punk in spirit, but not in sound. The roots of the indie aesthetic - that being, the original indie aesthetic, as opposed to the subsequent media-created NME shorthand for any style-conscious guitar band writing songs about A) London, B) America or C) the romanticised depiction of reckless abandon that forms the period between adolescence and your first job - could be found in the spirit of punk... with the scene evolving from the anyone can do it mentality of The Sex Pistols, to the DIY noise pop of acts like Swell Maps and The Birthday Party, before eventually splintering into two very distinct camps; the dark and brooding post-punk style of bands like Joy Division, The Fall and The Cure (particularly those first few albums), and the more pop influenced world of The Smiths, Orange Juice and The Teardrop Explodes.

The first two albums by Felt - the short and sparse Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty and it's equally austere follow up The Splendour of Fear - seemed to err more towards the bleaker climes of the former; with the band taking obvious influence from The Velvet Underground, Television and elements of Dylan's Desolation Row and combining them into a unique sound that was strangely melodic, and yet, entirely ornate. By the time things rolled around to their third album, the John Leckie produced masterpiece The Strange Idols Pattern & Other Short Stories, Felt had instead begun to push more towards the shimmering pop style of the latter; with the band becoming the only other act of the 1980's independent-underground to really rival The Smiths in terms of originality, consistency and eccentricity. Like The Smiths, the success of Felt's early releases relied entirely on the writing partnership between lead singer Lawrence Hayward and classically-trained guitarist Maurice Deebank, with Lawrence writing cryptic, literary and often self-deprecating lyrics to compliment Deebank's complex and incredibly intricate guitar arrangements (forming a relationship that was very much akin to that of Morrissey and Johnny Marr). This was backed by a barely there bass guitar, a sparse and Spartan approach to the production, and an almost metronome like 4/4 drum beat that ran consistently throughout.

After the pop-influenced high of The Strange Idols Pattern, Deebank decided to call it a day, citing the usual creative differences due to the obvious metamorphoses from a Velvets-inspired, avant-garde rock act, into a chiming, radio-friendly pop vehicle as his main reason for the departure. Seemingly undeterred by this decision, Lawrence would go on to helm Felt as his own glorified solo project, retaining principal members Gary Ainge and Marco Thomas, as well as enlisting the talents of future Primal Scream/Charlatans keyboard player Martin Duffy (who features on the cover of this particular album) to really take his somewhat unique vision of a pop band further than ever before. As a result, Forever Breathes the Lonely Word probably is the most accessible record Felt ever released... but its also their most complete and consistent. There are no instrumental sketches or vague ruminations over a minor-key dirge this time round, with the album offering great track after great track, all of it pop in influence but coming from somewhere that is more interesting and unique than you would usually imagine.

This is indie-pop as people like Stuart Murdoch like to remember it, with Felt having been a great influence on the early sound of a band like Belle & Sebastian, offering a template to their solitary tales of despair and disappointment, but with none of the feyness of adolescent sex or rosy-cheeked intellectual romance. The world of Lawrence is admittedly a sensitive one, but also one that is shot through with wit, cynicism and overt intelligence. This is clear from the very first track, Rain of Crystal Spires, which sets elements of Homer and The Iliad over a cheesy organ sound not entirely dissimilar to the kind played at baseball games. It's all rather disconcerting, especially if you come to this album off the back of the three great records aforementioned, with those particular albums really drawing mostly on an acoustic guitar to supply the rhythm and an electric guitar to supply lead. The organ crops up a number of times throughout the album, showcasing just how much influence Duffy et al must have had to the recording sessions (the album credits clearly state "Lawrence's songs coloured in by the band", which is a nice way of putting it).

Rain of Crystal Spires is a great introduction to the prevailing sound and spirit of the album as a whole; setting up the use of the organ as a replacement for Deebank's previously complicated guitar leads alongside the obvious integration with that typical Felt sound. The lyrics capture an atmosphere too, with Lawrence mournfully singing in that odd, Leonard Cohen meets Lou Reed meets Tom Verlaine style vocal delivery "seven brothers on their way from Avalon / and seven sisters shooting skyways for the sun / and Homer's Iliad lays burning in the fire / and I was pleased just then / till you said that the sun will never shine"; perfectly capturing the combination of the literary, with the historical, with personal. As you would expect from the previously noted list of influences, much of the lyrical rumination of Forever Breathes the Lonely Word (as if that title wasn't a give-away in itself) is downtrodden and dejected, though obviously enlivened by the vague and poetic references, the sly wit and the subtle turns of phrase; such as those found in the song Grey Streets, which pits the mundane despair of teenage malaise against the backdrop of empty star-worship.

Here we have a lyric which Morrissey himself could have penned on a good day, with Lawrence setting the scene with a poetic burst "grey streets and streets of grey / patrolled by nights from the invading day / closing eyelids stutter and tumble and turn away / makeshift memories they collide for another stay" before moving onto the crux of the argument. The next few lines introduce us to the notion of a teenager living out their fantasies (be they aspirational or entirely romantic) through the longing gaze of a pop star's poster, with Lawrence managing to invade the perspective of both characters, both with the initial set up of the song (a poet viewing the world in poetic terms) to the subsequent verse "I was attracted to you because your forces were so blind / and you were attracted to me because my face smiled down from a wall and you said I looked kind". He later brings the notion full circle, outlining the painful reality and bitterness of the situation; "I was a photograph, I was a picture on display / and you were so negative / because I once owned the world... / but I gave it away", as all the while the organ, drums and Lawrence's own Deebank-like lead guitar arrangements play away, creating an oddly upbeat juxtaposition to the downbeat nature of the lyrics and voice.

What comes next is one of two peerless tracks on the album, and one of the defining songs in the Felt cannon. All the People I like Are Those That Are Dead is Felt's flagship song; as pertinent as the earlier Penelope Tree or the Cocteau Twins produced single Primitive Painters. It's the song that underlined everything that was and still is great and magical and majestic about Felt as a band and Lawrence as a songwriter; from the long winded title, to the seemingly disconnected intro, to the melodic guitar arrangement weaving away alongside Duffy's organ, with the lyrics continually moving between the personal poetry of despair (undercut by the purposely broad melodrama of the title) and those vague and enigmatic allusions to books, films, places and people. If I was ever going to attempt to convert someone to the brilliance of Felt, All the People I like Are Those That Are Dead might very well be the song I'd use.

The lead guitar comes in; a simple melodic figure built around the C chord, backed with a hint of percussion. Lawrence's vocals emerge nervously; "maybe I should entertain / the very fact that I'm insane" before introducing the title refrain with the cold, cold line "I wasn't fooling when I said / all the people I like are those that are dead". At this point the drums kick in properly alongside the bass and acoustic rhythm guitar. "I've been around this town and I've seen what God has done / I've been around and it's no fun... / I've been a two-time tearaway and God has told me so / but I don't believe in him you know". As much as I love The Smiths, this is really the song Morrissey has been trying to write for years... and whenever he mournfully moans about faith or love on recent songs like I Have Forgiven Jesus and You Have Killed Me; he's only really offering a distillation of what Lawrence is saying here. "Maybe I should take a gun / and put it to the head of everyone / all the people I like are in the ground / it's better to be lost than to be found".

Like much of the material on Forever Breathes the Lonely Word, All the People I like Are Those That Are Dead is positively overflowing with pain and despair, and yet, it never becomes maudlin, melodramatic or overly sentimental. The music continues to propel us forward, filling in the emotional textures that are lacking from Lawrence's cold and disenchanted delivery, something that is just as apparent on the more up-tempo Gather Up Your Wings and Fly (which featured the cutting jab, "your self-induced hallucinations, they just make me bored", a possibly reference to the songwriter himself?) and the shorter, though no less brilliant Wave Crashed on Rocks, which finds Lawrence spouting some of his most glorious poetry over a beautiful backing that has all members of the band moving forward into the bleak abyss that the previous songs had only suggested.

People are crying
What are we going to do?
People are crying
I don't care about them I care about...
You in your wisdom you ruined it all
You sacrificed me for the cause of the storm
You ruined it all
Into the darkness
All I see is you
It's totally magic
What we have just been through
But now it's all over like a wave crashed on the rocks
I'm not your Jesus so will you get off my cross
You ruined it all.

The album closes with the suitably epic Hours of Darkness Have Changed My Mind, the second song following All the People I like Are Those That Are Dead that really defines this album. Here, Lawrence builds on the previous themes of religion, Homer, Arthurian legend, quests and personal anguish to relate a darkly cryptic vignette that could be pointing towards the legend of Faust, or to something else entirely. Though very much in keeping with the instrumentation and arrangement of the album as a whole, the song also harkens back to the sound of those first two albums, the dark and claustrophobic double feature presentation of Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty and The Splendour of Fear, with more guitar work from Lawrence and additional guitarist Tony Willé (who also adds backing vocals), and a much more restrained performance from Duffy on the hammond organ and piano. The lyrics, meanwhile, take us back to the stark, dark and evocative world that only Lawrence (and probably Leonard Cohen) could ever really create, given credence to Stuart Murdoch's argument that Lawrence really is the greatest lyricist of all time (an over-statement, perhaps, but I'll let you judge for yourselves).

Got into something, dangerous and strange
Was into nothing, that's the way I behave
I like those deep dark thoughts that leave you stranded way in mid-air
I'd like to do something that makes somebody somewhere care
Playing with fire, why should I mind?
I'm going beyond now, whatever truth will I find?
Corridors filled with smoke and all the trees uprooted and dead
A man who's got three square eyes and a boy with the snakeskin head

And I was torn apart by my love for a different land
And I was led astray by the touch of the devil's hand
It's your second nature; oh don't fool around 'till that's gone
A man is a boy a boy is a child a woman's son

I'm a disciple, I've become aware
Seen God in the heaven, and the Devil down there
Isn't it 'bout time boy, you got your thoughts onto something new?
You could come up with me if you really want something to do

And I was torn apart by my love for a different land
I was led astray by the touch of the devil's hand
It's your second nature; oh don't fool around 'till that's gone
A man is a boy a boy is a child a woman's son.

It's the perfect way to bring the album to a close, drawing on the right hint of sadness and melancholic reflection in those lyrics, but featuring an instrumental melody that is catchy enough to make us want to go back and listen to the whole thing again and again. It's that kind of record, managing to root itself lyrically to the darker side of life, but always retaining the plentiful influence of pop. We've already poured over the influences, and seen the legacy continued with bands like The Tyde, Laughing Stock and those perennial indie-pop hipsters Belle & Sebastian, and can kind of see a similar style being put forward by contemporaries like Orange Juice, The Smiths and the less soft-arsed elements of acts like The Servants and The Filed Mice, but really, Felt were a band that sounded like no one else (and as a result, have thus failed to find re-evaluation from British music press).

Felt were always just a little too left-of-centre; a bedroom pop group for people who probably read too much and had very few friends. I mean, the pop influences are there, and you can certainly tap your foot to this stuff, but can you imagine these songs igniting the dance floor of the nearest Student's Union? Hardly! And this is the continuing tragedy of Felt; one of the most unique and distinctive indie/rock/pop/whatever bands of the 1980's, and one that have still yet to prosper from the current social boom and media attention that the recent Britpop/indie revival seems to have brought about. With the current musical climate now moving away from indie-rock and more towards rave (as illustrated by the NME's cringe-worthy devotion to their own self-appointed "nu-rave" scene) it seems more and more unlikely that Felt will ever receive their due, which, with albums like this to their name, is truly heartbreaking.

NOTE: Post-Felt, Lawrence would go on to form the 70's referencing pop group Denim, with their first album, the fantastic Back in Denim managing to pre-date (and subsequently miss out on the attention of) Britpop by a couple of years, whilst second album Denim on Ice was a mediocre effort that really came too late. After Denim, Lawrence would form the bizarre pop project Go-Kart Mozart, which fuses synth-pop and novelty rock instrumentals to lyrics that reference pub-bombings, domestic abuse and South American torture techniques (thus far, the band have released two albums, Instant Wigwam and Igloo Mixture and the ironically titled Tearing Up the Album Charts). Meanwhile, Martin Duffy would go on to join Primal Scream, contributing to their much acclaimed Screamadelica album, before eventually collaborating with The Charlatans, while original member Maurice Deebank would release a 1984 solo album Inner Thought Zone (as well as collaborating with Saint Etienne), before abandoning music and moving to Barcelona to start a family.

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