Goodnight Babybird, hello Black Reindeer

Listen to this week’s Spotify playlist.

Not since Badfinger has an artist been so misrepresented by That Song. Stephen Jones released five albums of misanthropic pop music in the mid nineties, following the traditional pre-internet path to indie credibility of being played by Peel and Lamaq and Mark and Lard before being picked up by Echo Records in ’96.  And That Song.

The thing is, That Song was a lightweight and slightly pervy piece of pop, that despite a catchy chorus and plentiful radio play was never really what Jones was all about.  Have a dig through those five early albums (and I highly recommend that you do) and you’ll find criticism of religion and crises of masculinity along with songs called Grandma Begs To Be 18 Again. There was always much more going on than You being Attractive.

Of course, Jones never really seemed interested in playing the game.  It takes a special kind of talent to have a great pop song with Johnny Depp playing guitar and directing the video and for it not to fill pages of celebrity obsessed press, yet that’s exactly what happened with Unloveable in 2009.  So, despite his writing remaining consistently strong – 2010’s Ex-Maniac ranks among his best albums – Jones announced he was retiring the Babybird name earlier this year.

Then a few weeks ago he launched a Bandcamp page, with a few of his rarer recordings (including the hip-hop influenced Almost Cured Of Sadness recorded under his own name in 2003), and last Monday an album called Music From The Film That Never Got Made appeared under the name Black Reindeer.

At first it seems to be a big departure.  It’s a pretty minimal album, lots of piano playing reminiscent of Michael Nyman or ambient Eno and looped vocal samples.  As the title suggests, it feels like a soundtrack.  On closer inspection though, all those recurrent Babybird themes are present and correct.  There’s religion, fear of ageing, fatherhood, masculinity and the perils of fame.  The stand out is a song called Charlie Sheen, based around cut-up quotes from the titular star’s more self aggrandising moments.

Bandcamp seems to suit Jones, with direct contact to his audience and no one dictating how and when.  In fact; since the album he has released a further four-song EP and a song celebrating the result of the US election, almost immediately after the result was announced.  His twitter account is well worth a follow as well, for some comedic misanthropy.

The lack of his vocal and lyrics is a bit of a disappointment.  His lyric writing was always incisive and moving – have a listen to Failed Suicide Club – especially when paired with his yearning vocal, and I really hope that’s not gone forever.  He’s promised a live outing and it’ll be very interesting to see how he pulls off this new direction on stage, whether it’ll be better suited to a more formal concert setting than a traditional rock gig.

Until then though, it’s just good to have him back.