Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Copper Gone: Straight from his heart valves into your ears.

In my interview with Sage last week for Altar Ego Radio, I asked him why Buck 65 had made reference to the fact that this was an album by an artist ‘pushing 40’. Sage gave a fulsome and enlightening reply, but I asked the question because Buck 65’s comment had posed all sorts of questions for me.

I’m no longer ‘pushing’ 40, I’m pulling it, and despite the cliché of the attendant dread and self-examination not being an issue in the approach to The Birthday - in fact it was raucously ridiculed by me and my identically-aged friend - it hit afterwards. The most traumatic thing of my life occurred in the first year of my 40s, my last year of the 30s being the one in which I weighed the least, earned the most, ran the furthest, and triumphantly cut off all my hair. I was at my most confident, and I was precisely the reverse exactly one year later.

I thought ‘life’ had done that to teach me a lesson; perhaps I’d been smug, too confident or ambitious, and needed smacking down. But ‘life’ isn’t a force with a will of its own; it’s the thing that you create, and also the thing that, to quote another oft-quoted bloke, ‘happens when you’re busy making other plans’.

I never did understand why John Lennon was so revered, and still don’t really, but it’s a stone cold diamond-hard fact that other people’s words are what trigger some of the most thoughtful and considered responses in me. I can’t just draw things like other people, I have to have a trigger or jump-off - preferably a melancholic or dramatic one - and the over the last decade and a bit, the schoolgirl magnetism of Dickens, the Brontës and Nietzsche has given way to Sage Francis (and Ed Garland, but he’s for discussion later).

Sage will be 40 very soon ("My 40s…I’m not so sure”- Sage). Unlike me, he writes constantly and without needing other people’s material. His entire time on earth provides this. But for the majestic new album released today, even he needed to pull on the recognition this year that he came to a point, as I did, of thinking there ‘was nothing left’ to give. (The album is named for a neighbourhood house stripped over time of its every asset, till someone thought to write on its side ‘copper gone’, to try to prevent further devastation through looting.) His songs have always been unashamedly biographical, that’s well acknowledged. It’s why human beings he’s never met think he’s read their minds, or are his best friend, or look to him as mentor and life coach, counsellor or muse. His words will be engraved on skin by people he’ll never talk to, such is their resonance for individuals. They’ll approach him after gigs and ask, ‘how did you know’?

Well, he knows not because he has magical powers, or had particularly out of the ordinary experiences; he’s just never been afraid to talk about them, with crowbar’d open ribs and surgical word-precision. ‘Personal Journals’ was the album around which I clumsily but determinedly built a show of work which, via a series of events and opportunities I could never have foreseen, brought me to the place I found myself in at 39 - and also to where I am now.  Because of, and irrespective of this, it’s still a deeply moving album for me despite the really, really great albums he’s made since. I still look up to it as an example of what someone with no filter between soul, brain and pen can produce, and as such I still revere it as aspirational. 'Copper Gone’ came to us one track at a time, in the build-up to creating the cover art. Even without the village-burying avalanche effect of hearing all the tunes at once for the first time, which is how anyone buying the album today will experience it, it was immediately apparent that this, just like Personal Journals, was going to need a strong nervous system.

"A massive emotional outpouring” (Alarm Magazine) seems too dramatic a description when set against the voice of the chuckling jovial gentleman of our interview, but that’s just what this is. He’s a DIY artist and writer ("DIY or Die”) who’s built everything from scratch, but the price paid for that weighs on him no differently from that of the habitually all-nighting corporate financier; days, nights, sleep, leisure, friends, health, partnerships, children and opportunities sacrificed for the pursuit of ‘it’ - “he was too caught up in work to sign for the nice deliveries that life brings” (Once Upon A Blood Moon). In that respect, this album is a staggering exposé of the deals we can make without even realising, hoping ‘it’ll all be worth it’, and promising ourselves we’ll reward, relax and be present when we’re done, when it’s enough, when we’re ‘there’.

Something of an alarm call, then, for those of us currently squirming in recognition at that scenario (“we'll burn it at both ends, it's safe to assume what doesn't consume the flame, the flame consumes” - MAINT REQD).

The album is writhing with a thousand quotably poignant or funny lines, and yes some of those will bring fluid to the eyeballs. This is not to suggest however that the music isn’t an equally potent partner to them - even if you didn’t speak a word of Rhode Island, the magnificent beats keep this from being a maudlin sob story. Be careful - it isn’t. (“I talk a lot of shit but I can back it all the fuck up!” - from the satisfyingly bleepy 8-bitty Cheat Code.) I’m not going to break down every track, but some stick around long after the headphones are off.

'MAINT REQ' is a solid, one boot-in-front-of-the-other hip-hop banger that walks you roughly around the reasons This Guy Needs A Break. Reminiscent of the poignant Gunshot swansong ‘The Long Goodbye’, it’s that thing that good’n’proper hip-hop does well - robust singalong hooks, classical jabs to the ribs and monster beats (which are by Kurtis SP.) Sore and tired, it encourages us to ‘push through the pain…have you tried turning me off and back on again?'

‘The Set Up’ was the one that broke me - just as the still-unexplained ‘Bridle’ from Sage’s ‘A Healthy Distrust’ did, and Human The Death Dance’s ‘Black Out On White Night’. I met Alias, who fashioned the elegant softly-spoken tragedy that is the music to this one, at B.Dolan’s wedding, and I struggle to reconcile the memory of this chirpy good-natured bloke with the downright cruelty of those beats. I’m not sure I know (like ‘Bridle’) what this one is ‘about’, but when tracks are so peppered with acute observations and wordplay, and for all the cleverness and obtuseness, does it actually really matter?

I suppose that’s it: although Sage’s creations can, if I invite them to, provide an unconditionally rich seam of ideas and content which I can plunder and exploit visually, they can also, if I choose, simply be the most awesomest hip-hop tracks I’ve ever listened to in that moment - even if I happen to be crying as I shuffle earnestly from hoof to hoof, empty notebook in hand.

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