CALENTURE – THE TRIFFIDS (1987)
Calenture – a word so arcane, so esoteric that a compulsion was felt, either by Island Records or by the Triffids themselves, to carry its definition on the back cover: a tropical delirium which would, after months at sea, lead sailors to see the ocean as a field and wish to propel themselves towards it. A soaked mirage, you might say.
Daniel Defoe mentions it in Robinson Crusoe and another lesser-known novel, Captain Singleton; Joseph Conrad, remarkably, never seems to have referred to it at all, though something similar appeared to afflict many of his characters, notably the deranged, Gollum-like wretches which recur throughout his novels and are ripe for exploration in a PhD. The Triffids saw it as an apt metaphor not only, in a novel twist on a well-worn subject, for the nomadic existence of a touring band but also for their own deracination.
Like the Birthday Party and the Go-Betweens before them, the Triffids left Australia for the UK to get things done but there are probably more traces of their homeland in the records they made among the Poms than in those of their compatriots. Vast, uncultivatable inland spaces, jagged shores and tough lives of soil and toil largely prevailed on 1986’s Born Sandy Devotional over the stereotype of quasi-Californian coastal city lifestyles that was rapidly emerging through soap operas (more on that soon), linking it closely to their earlier records and making it a companion piece to REM’s Fables Of The Reconstruction – which was also recorded in London a few months earlier and had an even more forlorn yearning for a warmer, unreachably distant home.
Calenture, by contrast, has appropriately, a ceaselessly flowing, liquid sound and is, unambigously, huge. In sound, scale and ambition, it dwarfs the sound of the Triffids’ contemporaries: of U2, whose multiplanetary success bankrolled the Triffids and who were filling spaces they could never approach; of the Waterboys, who had coined the term Big Music but were in fast retreat from it, and Echo and the Bunnymen, whose masterpiece Ocean Rain, for all its own grandeur, resembles a demo next to Calenture’s torrential kaleidoscope.
Much of the credit for the record’s water sculpture presentation lies with Gil Norton who, after reportedly unsuccessful tryouts with Craig Leon and Lenny Kaye, was brought back to revisit the sterling job he had done alongside the Triffids on Born Sandy Devotional (most of the Triffids were also fresh from backing Bill Drummond on his wonderfully odd solo album, The Man). Norton may have lacked the CBGB scene pedigree of his predecessors but knew how to make a sound swell, sheen and surge at the right time in the right way – he had already done so with the Bunnymen (among the ‘All Concerned’ who produced Ocean Rain) and Throwing Muses and would do so again with Blue Aeroplanes and, perhaps most celebratedly, Pixies on Doolittle.
It’s there on opener Bury Me Deep In Love, where agile strings, choir and tympani – loads of tympani – embellish the Triffids’ already florid core sound, resting on Jill Birt’s rich keyboard orchard and the magnificent voice of David McComb, one of the genuinely great male singers of his day, who steered Scott Walker from California and Paris, and Ian Curtis from Manchester and Berlin, to some unknown, but far from neutral, meeting ground. It was a voice that was emotional but never sentimental, strong but never brutish (not even when shouting on Born Sandy Devotional’s Stolen Property), vulnerable but never weak. On this song, he shifts the identity of the buried, from “me” to “him” to “them,” and the scene of the commanded burial, from a chapel to a precipice to the rocks below and back to a “tiny congregation” – just in time for the wedding of Neighbours characters Harold and Madge, which it would later soundtrack. Despite the song’s glories and universal sentiment, the British and Australian record-buying public instead opted for Suddenly by Angry Anderson when the bells rang in Ramsay Street again.
One of Calenture’s few flaws is exposed at the start of the solemn yet triumphant Kelly’s Blues. Birt whispers: “You think of everything, my dear, but you do not think of me” – and that’s the closest she gets to a lead vocal, despite leading her voice to some of their most vivid and stirring songs up to then (Raining Pleasure, Tarrilup Bridge, Tender Is The Night). Like McComb, her range isn’t huge – no falsetto or melisma in this band – but she also brings this song a voiceless chorus on a piano figure that glows like a September sunset. It’s also seared by a clarion guitar that the Mission might have offered the same year and is a personal tour de force for future Bad Seed Martyn (P) Casey, whose elastic bass unleashes unexpected shafts of funk, not the Level 42/Seinfeld horrors that might be feared but a genuinely lithe journey to the lower end, following Les Pattinson’s highway code.
There’s an even more burnished piano twilight on Blinder By The Hour, a song which puts me right where it wants it like few others. The place is just off one of Bordeaux’s main thoroughfares, Rue Ste Catherine, and I’m transported there every time, “down Roman streets through your secret back door” – a line which echoes the puzzling entrances of Dylan’s Temporary Like Achilles and holds a similar sense of fervent yearning, while there’s a snapping regret at “the damn all we said and the damn all we wrote” that harks back to the Triffids’ own doom-laden Life Of Crime. And that chorus – the appeal for peace of “lay me down now,” the resignation to fate of “take me down,” which are a twist from the version recorded earlier in a woolshed for In The Pines, where the plea of “lay me out now” suggested abandonment to the vultures. Many times I sat there outside cafes with this impossibly beautiful song pursuing thoughts around my ahead – I barely feel able to do it justice and can only recommend you secure your own moment for it.
Jerdacuttup Man (named after a tiny Western Australian settlement) also shares imagery with Blinder By The Hour; again the narrator has sewn-up eyelids and teeth of dice but not without reason; he’s a 10,000-year-old prehistoric dweller sentenced to a living death as a museum exhibit. McComb’s monologue was largely seen as comical, with his character anachronistically blighted by “no luck in business” and shruggingly conceding “you could say I’m a chump.” But listen to his tumbling delivery of the second verse’s latter lines: “I tried to object but the words didn’t come/Say ‘you’re making a mistake boys, you’ve got the wrong one/I’m a little out of shape but I’m too young to go’/But my throat just seized up and it started to snow.” There’s a universe of here-and-now suffering in there – poverty, homelessness, miscarriage of justice – aptly set to an intermittent hammer-on-anvil/galley rowers’ rhythm and hauling slide guitar, though it makes periodic breaks for freedom on the unlikely wings of uillean pipes, which by 1987 were already a cliched signifier of Celtic authenticity and would be finally, irrevocably, Titanically tainted a decade later but actually work here by adding to the prehistoric murk.
A regrettable period detail is similarly avoided on Hometown Farewell Kiss, where a sax steps forward not once but twice to take a solo from a rearguard of growling Stax horns. Fortunately, it’s muted and enveloped in a packed and seemingly disparate arrangement, where organ, marimba, gospel voices and the steel guitar of ‘Evil’ Graham Lee also jostle for position – and somehow all manage to find it. Meanwhile, McComb blurs the line between literal and metaphorical as he tells mysteriously of “my hometown city burning down…I just came back to see the people and their houses burn” then issues the command for his name to be crossed off his lover’s “fiery list.”
And so another element arrives to challenge water’s dominance of Calenture but it’s short-lived, as Holy Water douses the flames with a sequencer undertow that’s at once metallic and mellifluous and a melody so effervescent that it’s odd it took almost a whole year after the album’s release for it to emerge as a (non-hit) single. It’s also the indirect source of the album’s title – when McComb came across the word that purred, he had already written the lyric which told of “an ocean like a meadow” and the coincidence couldn’t be fought.
The soothing washes of Save What You Can are the last word beyond which little can be added. It opens with a figure which would later be rejigged on tack piano by Neil Young on A Dream That Can Last and which speaks wordlessly of yearning, memories of sunsets, times which maybe really were as idyllic as you remember. It’s a song not so much about aging as power fading though changing times, time running out (“Time is against us, even love conspires to disgrace us…We used to walk in the flames/Now somebody’s taken my arms”) until self-preservation and self-interest become the only options (“You save of yourself what you can save…If you don’t get caught, then steal it all”). It comes over as a twist on the French equivalent of ‘every man for himself,’ which translates as ‘save yourself if you can’; it would be a punishingly sombre ending were it not for its glorious musical setting and the wit and open-heartedness which surround it elsewhere in the Triffids’ annals. It cuts as deep as Dive For Your Memory, which closed 16 Lovers’ Lane for their countrymen/women the Go-Betweens the following year; that is deep.
Following one more album, 1989’s diverse but uneven Black Swan, time was up for the Triffids. One horrible day a decade later, the news came through of David McComb’s death at the age of 36; it truly choked me in its suddenness, its seeming arbitrariness and the feeling – not for the first time, certainly not for the last but profoundly just the same – of a life and voice stilled, an ornate and panoramic vision summarily extinguished.
The ripples of that vision spread over the years – to Shiva Burlesque, Midlake, Arcade Fire. Arcade Fire were of primary school age when the Triffids were in their prime, so theirs may be a coincidental or at-several-removes echo, but the shortest distance between two points can be traced between the two bands’ theatrical flourishes, the tension in both their native countries’ frontier struggle past and chic urban present, even their line-up dynamics, with siblings (David and guitarist/violinist Robert McComb) and a couple (Birt and drummer Alsy MacDonald).
Even so, despite their penchant for the anthemic (Win Butler has been honest enough to concede that his band has, even if only indirectly, inspired a good deal of pretty awful music) Arcade Fire have always sounded pretty lean and spindly next to the Triffids’ watercolour roar. Calenture has possibly aged better than any of their albums, lacking as it does the gated snare wallop of Born Sandy Devotional, the pointed downhomeness of In The Pines and some almost too-in-the-moment elements of The Black Swan. This shouldn’t be seen as a dismissal of any of those still magnificent records but, for exquisite, pomposity-free orchestral rock music, Calenture is right up there with Forever Changes, Paris 1919 and the aforementioned Ocean Rain – it’s that good (PG).