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Kevin Ayers - The Unfairground

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Artist: Kevin Ayers

Album: The Unfairground

Label: Gigantic

Review date: Mar. 13, 2008

The Unfairground has been out in the U.K. and beyond since early autumn 2007; it has been greeted with effusive praise, and Kevin Ayers has been feted like the returning Messiah. So its U.S. release affords an opportunity for a considered reappraisal of its merits.

While Ayers’ best early albums – from Joy of a Toy to Bananamour – are peppered with great, memorable songs, such as “May I” and “Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes,” none of the albums is an unqualified success. Each has its share of filler, whether it is pedestrian instrumental interludes or less than inspiring songs.

The same cannot be said of The Unfairground; it features ten strong songs without filler or flab. All have melodies that rapidly lodge in the brain, the kind that the paperboy could whistle on his round. The songs are Ayers’ typical blend of folk and psychedelia, with nothing that ties them to any particular era. Only the opener, “Only Heaven Knows,” first recorded in 1986 on the little-known As Close As You Think album, hints at its vintage, through the easy-going vaudeville style occasionally favoured by ’60s psychedelic rockers. The rest have a more timeless quality.

Lyrically, Ayers at his best has always blended whimsy and menace, and that is largely true here, witness the title track or “Brainstorm,” in which he sounds like a tortured soul: “You shout, scream / give me back my dream / I need one to get through the day / If its lost and if its gone / I won’t keep hanging on / and the storm can just blow me away.” An added dimension here is a sense of reflection and longing, for lost friends, lost lovers, lost youth. This is unsurprising; Ayers is now 62, and there are a few signs of age in his performance (his voice is maybe just a notch down from the rich baritone of his heyday). But there are even more in his lyrics. From “Cold Shoulder”: “I don't understand anymore / as I grow older / Nothing seems to be / clearer than before. / Old shoulders / become cold shoulders / Nothing left to dream on.”

If those lyrics sound depressed or depressing, I don’t want to mislead you. There are more uplifting songs and lyrics that stand comparison with anything Ayers has written; “Walk on Water,” “Friends and Strangers,” and “Baby Come Home” are all surely future classics. The latter, a delightful duet with Bridget St. John (last heard with Ayers on Shooting at the Moon in 1970) that features beguiling accordion accompaniment and Ayers’ voice at its seductive best.

Much has been made of the fact that Ayers is joined by a younger generation of musicians who were influenced by him – including Teenage Fanclub, Euros Childs, Candie Payne and Ladybug Transistor – alongside old associates such as Hugh Hopper, Phil Manzanera, Robert Wyatt and St. John. Together, they produce a musical tapestry that reveals more and more detail with repeated listening. The occasional addition of strings and mariachi brass adds drama and coloration that has even drawn comparisons with Forever Changes – doubtless, blasphemy to some, but not too wide of the mark. Ultimately though, the music does not rely on any embellishments; the songs here are so strong that Ayers could perform them alone with an acoustic guitar and they would be just as powerful.

By John Eyles

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