Back in Black
Julian Cope's Trip Continues on Citizen Cain'd

It’s 1:30 in the morning, and I’ve just returned from seeing a great gig.

I don’t get out to see live music as much as I want to anymore, but this was Keane, playing the Riviera here in Chicago, and I wasn’t about to miss it. Keane flips my particular switch more than any new band I have heard since the Ben Folds Five – they were the musical discovery of the year for me in 2004, and their album Hopes and Fears is pretty damn close to absolutely perfect.

And you know what? They’re better live.

Keane has a non-traditional lineup – singer Tom Chaplin, drummer Richard Hughes and keyboardist Tim Rice-Oxley, and that’s it. Rice-Oxley has the Jack White role here, meaning that every melodic contribution that’s not lead vocals is down to him. Live he writhes about like an epileptic, keeping time with his whole body and banging the hell out of his electric piano. In contrast, Chaplin mostly just stands there, but his voice is so powerful and clear that your focus is drawn to him anyway. Chaplin’s voice was even stronger live than on record, filling the theater all by its lonesome.

The band played most of Hopes and Fears, including its b-sides, but they also premiered two new tunes. What can I say except this: inevitably, there will come a day when Keane writes a bad song, a song that doesn’t effortlessly soar above nearly everything that currently passes as pop music. That day has not yet come, though. At this point Keane is testing my well-honed cynicism – they are so good that I’m already dreading the eventual decline, the middle third of their Behind the Music special, before the rehab and the reunion tour. May it never come to that.

And can I just add that if you haven’t bought Hopes and Fears yet, you really should.

* * * * *

The first thing most everyone says about Julian Cope is that he’s insane.

You’ll see it in the first paragraph of reviews, articles and interviews – Cope is fried, nuts, out of touch, on another planet, loopy, a hazelnut cream and a praline delight short of a full box of chocolates. He has weird ideas, weird beliefs, and most of all, he makes weird music. I got more than 5,000 results on a Google search for “Julian Cope” and “insane.”

And I’m not going to say that Cope isn’t a little bit crazy, but I think he’s insane in the same way that Dave Sim is insane. Both have looked at the world, processed all the horror and pain through their own individual filters, and come to some internally consistent conclusions. That these conclusions don’t jive with the thoughts of most of the rest of the world means little – both Cope and Sim are a very particular, very reasonable form of crazy, and spend any time with the works of either one, and you start to see the sense in what they’re saying.

It helps that Cope is an immensely talented songwriter. He started off as the lead visionary in a band called The Teardrop Explodes. After a couple of psychedelic records with them, he spun off on his own with a series of fractured pop records, including the near-classic Saint Julian. Still, the constraints of radio-pop seemed to be chafing him on the overly synth-poppy My Nation Underground. So, in 1991, he left his pop career behind and never looked back.

Perhaps Cope’s best regarded work is his what’s-wrong-with-the-world trilogy, released between 1991 and 1994. He explored man’s responsibility to the planet on Peggy Suicide, took aim at organized religion on Jehovahkill, and imagined a world gone to hell thanks to cars, gas and oil on Autogeddon. Along the way, he dropped Kraut-rock jams, Beatlesque carnival music, a couple of phenomenal space-rock guitar solos, and some world-class pop songs. These are three terrifically varied, well-constructed gems full of melody and madness.

And then? Well, he put out the scattered, swirly 20 Mothers in 1995 and the more focused, rollicking Interpreter in 1996, and then seemed to disappear. The general public hasn’t heard from Julian Cope in almost 10 years, but in truth, he’s been more active in those years than ever before. A visit to his website will show that, like many other bands and artists, Cope has latched onto the internet as a way to get his work out there with a minimum of external influence, and he’s been using it to build (ahem) his nation underground.

So let’s see. Cope has written several books on spiritual sites throughout Europe. He’s formed three bands, ranging from the moron-rock of Brain Donor to the ambient drones of Queen Elizabeth, and produced a number of very strange solo albums. The Rite series sounds like Prince’s News album, all beats and wah-wah, while works like Odin take drones and ambience to their 70-minute breaking point. He’s written some pop songs, too, but they’ve never been more odd-sounding. All in all, Cope has taken every opportunity to be as uncompromising as possible, sales be damned, and he sounds artistically happier than he’s ever been.

For years, though, he’s been talking about this album called Citizen Cain’d that he’s been working on. (And can I take a moment to marvel at that title? It’s a work of art all by itself.) After 36 months of work, Cain’d was finally released last month in a really cool package – two discs in a solid black jewel case, housed in a black slipcase. And the album is picking up some strong reviews and support, leading some to expect that it will be his commercial comeback, despite its release on his own homemade Head Heritage label.

Lest the reviews mislead those early-90s Cope fans into thinking that he’s created another Peggy Suicide here, though, I have to say that if you haven’t been following along, Cain’d will leave you scratching your head. The darkness of the packaging promises a dark record, and man, has Cope delivered on that score, but he’s also made one that follows closely on the heels of his work with Brain Donor and his more esoteric solo material. Cain’d has 12 songs, and not one of them is a hit. Even on alternative college radio. Trust me.

Cope says that Citizen Cain’d is split up into two CDs, despite running just a bit more than 70 minutes in total, because the songs are too “psychologically exhausting” to play all in a row. While I think that’s crap, I do applaud the decision, because the two discs are very different. The first is basically a Brain Donor album, loud and bashing and raw. Opener “Hell Is Wicked” crashes in on a pair of riffs that would make Zeppelin fans drop jaw, and then “I Can’t Hardly Stand It” explodes, heralded by Cope’s mad exultations.

There’s no getting around the sound of the first half of the disc – it’s mixed very strangely. The lead guitar that spills all over “I Can’t Hardly Stand It” is so loud and blatted that it may damage your speakers, and I think Cope knew he had written a catchy little number with “I’m Living In the Room They Found Saddam In,” so he damaged the vocal track. (Speaking of great titles, how about that one, huh?) Since the odd mixing decisions are confined to a few tracks, though, I have to think that Citizen Cain’d sounds exactly the way Cope wants it to. Similarly, he mispronounces Saddam Hussein’s first name, but I think he did it so that the lyric could be misheard as “I’m living in the room they found so damning.” That fits with the lyrics and theme as well.

The first disc concludes with a 13-minute waltz called “I Will Be Absorbed,” and any fears that this album will be nothing but Iggy Pop ditties should be allayed. “Absorbed” is a wonder, with some great melodies and a powerful chorus. It goes on a little long, but it leads into the more melodic second disc well. Disc two is slower, but no less dark – witness the opener, an 11-minute web of guitars called “Feels Like a Crying Shame,” in which he uses the title phrase to describe his own reincarnation.

“World War Pigs” is the album’ most indelible number, sizing up religious conflict with some pointed observations: “The word is out on Allah, he’s been hijacked…” “The Living Dead,” similarly, equates westerners with shambling zombies, and finds Cope walking through Armenia and decrying his own country: “I will not represent the living dead.” The song is delivered with little but Cope’s voice and guitar, and while it’s an odd choice for the intimate treatment, it works well.

And then the closer, “Edge of Death,” gives us Cope at his most abstract and howling. Over nine minutes of driving guitars (with no drums), Cope details a nightmare world, and examines himself in its shackles. This one is not for the faint of heart, as Cope’s vocals are, shall we say, unrestrained. But it’s a powerful piece, including actual helicopter sounds to add force, and it could only have been the last song.

As a complete trip, Citizen Cain’d doesn’t quite hold together, and those looking for a return to form will probably be disappointed – the album is another progression along Cope’s singular musical path, and it leaves little doubt that he’s going to follow this path for the rest of his life. (He’s already announced the title of his next project: Dark Orgasm. Yikes…) Listening to Cain’d is like peering into the mind of the sanest crazy person you’re likely to meet, and while it’s not a masterpiece, it’s up to the high standard Cope has set for more than 20 years. And, of course, it’s only available direct from him.

* * * * *

Cope’s website includes a section called “Unsung,” where Cope picks an album every month or so and gives it his full support. Reading this section led me to purchase one of the strangest and most oddly compelling albums I’ve ever added to my collection. See, there was this doom-rock band called Sleep, and they played slow, pounding metal as if the first three Black Sabbath albums were the only records ever released. And after two moderately successful stoner-rock platters (Volume One and Sleep’s Holy Mountain) they were signed to London Records.

And as legend has it, London paid a sizeable advance for the band to record their third album. And lo, the band did smoke the whole advance, buying huge quantities of pot and other substances, and when the time came for them to turn in that third album, they gave London something called Dopesmoker. And verily, I tell thee, Dopesmoker consists of a single 63-minute song, also called “Dopesmoker,” that chronicles the travels of the Weedian people to the Riff-Filled Land.

I’m going to repeat the pertinent parts of that, because I find them so amazing: A 63-minute song. The Weedian people. The Riff-Filled Land. It’s called Dopesmoker.

Naturally, of course, I had to have this thing.

And thankfully, the full version of Dopesmoker is available now after a protracted battle with London Records that caused the group to break up. London did release a 50-minute version of the song, retitled Jerusalem, but the 63-minute one is the real deal. It sounds very much like someone playing Black Sabbath and Paranoid very, very slowly, after pulling Ozzy’s tongue from his mouth and giving him food poisoning. It’s an endurance test. Time slows to a crawl while this is playing. I’ve made it through four times now, but I’m not sure my eardrums have.

And I’ve only made it through because I’m obsessive about music, and about finding patterns and compositions where others hear noise. I would bet that none of my friends could make it to the 20-minute mark, and I’m willing to put money on that. Cope’s current album of the month is by Om, a band that has risen from the ashes of Sleep, and it consists of three long songs that probably sound just like Dopesmoker. And I may have to get that one, too.

It’s a sickness.

Anyway, next week, Tori.

See you in line Tuesday morning.