For most bands the Britpop tag was both a blessing and a curse – a blessing in that it guaranteed them exposure in the press and the charts, and a curse because when that movement rather abruptly ended the tag remained a millstone around their necks. The majority, with nothing more to offer than a few jaunty pop songs, were quickly sunk. Those that managed to plod on for a while were deemed Britpop Survivors, which isn’t much of a compliment.
Happily, Mark Morriss’s former group The Bluetones were something else entirely. Always in a field of their own, their albums were jammed with great tunes and even greater lyrics, and they ploughed their own furrow until their amicable split in 2011. In the meantime Mark had released his first solo album – 2008’s excellent Memory Muscle, with string arrangements by David Arnold – and now he’s back with an even more spectacular record in A Flash Of Darkness, set for release next Monday the 24th of February through Acid Jazz Records.
The lyrics reveal this to be dark night of the soul music – “Personally I went through quite a difficult time, and as is often the way, that was translated into the songs,” say Mark – but the abundance of tunes make it a pop master class. I know it’s only February but I can safely say A Flash Of Darkness will fly high in my albums of the year list come December.
The title track, originally written for a short-lived musical project with Matt Berry, begins with Spaghetti Western church bells and whistling and gets the album off to a great start. It’s followed by the up-tempo, Jim Bergerac mentioning, inverted break-up song Consuela in which he leaves his love because, well, she’s just too nice – “But when you show me kindness well I don’t know what to think / I wish you’d just stop trying or slip something in my drink”. If there was any justice in the world it would be Number One with a bullet, and that goes for the whole album – it plays like a greatest hits collection.
As if to prove that point, up next is Guilty Again, all summery Sixties jingle jangle. A perfect pop song with a killer chorus. Another potential hit single is the synth-laden Space Cadet, filled with bass whooshes and a gorgeous Moog solo. The album features two cover versions – there’s a reverential treatment of The Shins’ Pink Bullets, while Kavinsky’s Nightcall gets a stunning acoustic reworking that (shout it, don’t whisper it) improves on the original.
The dark themes are most obvious on This Is The Lie (And That’s The Truth), in which Mark runs through the things he does by himself, followed each time by the “who am I trying to convince?” line of “which is good!” It’s only when you get to the chorus – “this is the lie that I tell myself” – that the charade crumbles. The accompanying guitar beautifully illustrates the mood, repeating bars as each time it takes longer to do the convincing. The album notes refer to it as the record’s “reflective heart, and a perfect companion piece to Sir Cliff’s Bachelor Boy.” Indeed!
A Flash Of Darkness builds to the epic finale Sleep Song, a plea for a dreamless sleep to give a brief respite from waking life. It’s a beautiful ode, with enchanting musical backing and an exquisite lyric. This is a pop record with heart and soul. There are no lows, just high upon high upon high. After twenty years of great music, both with band and solo, Mark Morriss keeps on getting better and better and surely ranks as one of England’s top tunesmiths. It’s not only a joy to be able to experience this record, but a privilege too.
24 February 2014.
Acid Jazz Records.
Consuela, This Is The Lie (And That’s The Truth) (video below), Sleep Song.