Edwyn Collins - Understated
Disclaimer: I worship at the altar of Edwyn Collins. Orange Juice are like the Holy Ghost of my blessed trinity. 'Girl Like You' is a hymn. His West Heath Studios are probably my place of pilgrimage, if you want to stretch it that far. I saw him play - with Teenage Fanclub as his backing band - at All Tomorrow's Parties a few years ago, and it's the best gig I've ever been to. He can do now wrong in my eyes.
Well, not quite. To be perfectly honest, his solo work had been going a little bit stale in the early noughties. Home Again's title track made for an emotive song in light of Collins' series of strokes not long after he finished recording the record (might I highly recommend the documentary about his recovery, narrated by Alex Kapranos, of the same name?), but it was a bit of a lifeless album. Which was simultaneously a shame and a surprise - from Orange Juice onwards, Collins constantly strove for inventive, catchy, witty, and energetic guitar music. And what was amazing was that he always pulled it off; Orange Juice's releases on Postcard Records in the eighties pre-figured most of modern indie rock, and his solo records weren't half bad to boot. 2010's Losing Sleep was a bolt from the blue, a phenomenally accomplished foot-stomp of a record for a man who, a few short months before, couldn't even say his name, let alone write and sing a song.
Understated lets Collins step out of the shadow of his medical history - partly by shirking the host of guest artists that crowded Losing Sleep, who were perhaps employed to distract from any continuing cracks in his abilities – and is all the better for it. Described by the man himself as "a collection of country, northern soul, soul and folk," it's a powerful record not for any mawkish sentimentality, but for the strength of the band - who work through those disparate genres with ease, the rhythm section a incessant driving force, the backing vocals sweet, the guitars warm, the brass section and keys more than welcome whenever they appear - and the strength of Collins' voice. His rich baritone reaches ever more delightful tones, and his sharp lyrics haven't been blunted over the years. If anything, in honing them to a Hemingway-esque simplicity, they pack even more of a punch.
Whilst it is, for the most part, a sincere album about the small, good things in life, there's a good amount of bite as well: 'Too Bad (That's Sad)' is amongst the catchiest, most passive-aggressive break up songs you're likely to hear, and single 'Dilemma' runs through a lot of questions with no easy answers. Mostly written alone in his home town of Helsmdale where he sat between fields and the sea, Understated is as direct and individualistic a portrait of Edwyn Collins, marvel of modern science, as we're likely to get. Until the next one, that is.