Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Saint Julian

I love contrasts in music. I love the way that songs have internal conflicts such as minor key melodies set against pounding dance grooves or slow moving tunes melded to busy rhythms. It’s what makes music so fascinating. The knack seems to be to assimilate the weird and wonderful into a recognisable structure. It is for this reason that I like Julian Cope, who is a whole host of contradictions himself, and his music.

Outwardly eccentric and in many ways completely bats, Cope also possesses a mind that can research and catalogue ancient stone circles and write a massive authoritative tome on the subject (The Modern Antiquarian) and that can write, at his best, exhilarating music. Given his general demeanour you would expect his music to be scatty and uncoordinated – but not a bit of it. He understands musical structure and dynamics and can produce a pure pop hook with the best of them. Many of his best tunes, like ‘World Shut Your Mouth’ are irritatingly hummable. But what he does best is wrap up those melodic hooks in epic musical dramas that unfold in front of you or weird facsimiles of his beloved Krautrock.

In the late 1980s he produced one of his best and arguably most mainstream of his albums, ‘Saint Julian’. This comprises a series of rocky, generally aggressive songs backed by a slick traditional rock trio. But in amongst the rousing choruses, he plants little oases of calm where a fragment of melodic beauty is allowed to flourish. A bit like a rare alpine flower revealed momentarily by a rampaging avalanche. This is what makes ‘Saint Julian’ such a gem of an album. The later ‘Jehovahkill’ would attempt the same trick but in a slightly different way. Both are essential listening.

Much as I admire Cope, I cannot get to the bottom of his complex character. He seems to blend a sharp analytical mind with strange philosophies and an almost hippyish glee in being unconventional and I can’t quite work out whether this is the real Cope or whether it is all an act. Even a trawl through his rambling and utterly eccentric autobiography, ‘Head’ gives no real clue. Whatever, he embodies what for me is a real rock star, someone who is completely bonkers and unique yet still has a firm grip on how to create and structure great music. You have to be mad to be different but you have to have understanding to be mad, different and good and Cope embodies this in spades.

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