Monthly Archives: April 2021

#realnineties – Blue Jay and No More ‘I Love You’s

A couple of years ago, Mel and I watched a movie from 2016 called Blue Jay. It stars Mark Duplass and the always-excellent Sarah Paulson as Jim and Amanda, high-school sweethearts who run into each other after 20 years. It’s basically just a two-hander, following the characters for 24 hours, during which they get drunk at Jim’s mother’s house and relive their past together, while the unresolved issues between them force their way to the surface.

During the evening, they go through Jim’s collection of mementoes from their relationship. At one point, he puts on an Annie Lennox CD and they dance to No More ‘I Love You’s. At the start, they’re just goofing around, singing along in falsetto, but while the song does its Proustian work on them, they begin to share meaningful eye and bodily contact. As the song ends, the camera lingers for a second on the ring on Amanda’s finger.

It’s a great scene, but it absolutely works as well as it does because of the astute choice of song on the part of whoever was supervising the music (could have been Duplass; he wrote and produced the film, so it’s really his baby).

It would have been easy for the music supervisor to prove their hipster cred by putting something obscure and cool on the soundtrack and have Jim and Amanda dance to that. But that wouldn’t have been true to their characters. Jim and Amanda were evidently not the coolest kids in their school. On the evidence of the skits they recorded together on a cassette player as teenagers, they were probably theatre kids. No More ‘I Love You’s is exactly the kind of thing they would have had as their song: a little arty, a little camp and a little dramatic, but still ultimately a mainstream pop song.

Most importantly, the song pulls off a delicate high-wire act. The falsetto backing vocals and the grandiosity of the arrangement are knowingly (almost provocatively) absurd, but the emotions underpinning Lennox’s performance feel real, and even earnest; she sounds properly committed to the material. The song’s emotional state is complicated, and keeps shifting. This emotional instability is reflected in Jim and Amanda’s move from awkwardness at the beginning of the scene (which they attempt to disguise with humour) to vulnerability and connection at the end, undercut by the knowledge that they can’t recapture who they were as teenagers; the ring on Amanda’s is just one visible sign of this impossibility.

Before watching Blue Jay, I’d have told you I didn’t like No More ‘I Love You’s.

In explaining why, it’s worth pointing out that, in the UK, the song, and its singer, code a little differently than they do in the US. As far as I can tell from its chart positions, it was a middling hit in America, bigger on the dance and AC charts than on the Hot 100. In the UK, on the other hand, it reached number two on the singles chart and was absolutely played to death on commercial radio. It felt inescapable. It’s not a stretch to say that, along with people like Simply Red and Geoge Michael, Lennox was one of the artists who defined commercial radio in the first half in the nineties – Why and Walking on Broken Glass had been just as huge in 1992-3. By the time Essex FM and Capital Radio were done with No More ‘I Love You’s, I never wanted to hear it again.

Its use in Blue Jay, though, hit me hard enough to make me re-evaluate it, and go back to investigate the original recording by one-time Eurythmics support act The Lover Speaks. It’s pretty clear to me now that I got it wrong, and my judgement of the song was affected by its ubiquity on radio. It is, I hear now, a great song – off-kilter and idiosyncratic, but thoroughly pop in how those idiosyncrasies are manifested. The song’s greatness is absolutely present in the original recording, too, despite its rather ponderous rhythm track. David Freeman’s vocal has even more lunatic goth theatricality than Lennox’s, and it’s definitely worth hearing that version if you don’t know it.

So now, despite basically loathing the Eurythmics and my indifference to most of what I’ve heard of Lennox’s solo work, I’ve turned around on No More ‘I Love You’s. And honestly, that’s great. Sometimes it takes a piece of art to show you how you’d got another piece of art wrong.

Blue Jay, incidentally, is well worth seeing. I didn’t really care for the revelation in the final act, but the relationship between the two leads all the way up to that moment felt very real and true. And as I said, it’s the work of people who understand the era in which the characters grew up and how it shaped them.

Songs from the back of the cupboard

This was kind of fun, if a little self-indulgent. Maybe I’ll do it again.

The other night I was playing around with a slow minor-key chord sequence, and it reminded me of a song I wrote and recorded around eight years ago. It came out as the B-side of a single I did for a short-lived project called Board of Fun, run by my friend and Watertown Carps bandmate Yo Zushi.

Board of Fun was an old-school pen-and-ink zine, with specially commissioned articles and artwork, and it in turn spawned a website and the Board of Fun Singles Club. Every month, Yo released download-only single under the BoF banner. I was one of the people who put out a Board of Fun single before the project ran out of steam. It was a two-song release: a Fleetwood Mac-via-Jonathan Wilson kind of thing called Little Differences, and a slower, piano-led B-side called Can You Explain. The new piece I was working on the other night reminded me of the latter, so I dug the Cubase project out and had a listen.

It’s a weird thing to listen to your own work after enough time has passed that you can hear it more or less objectively, as if it were someone else’s doing. OK, while it was evidently a sincere piece of work, it wasn’t my finest melody in the verses; it starts high-ish but quickly drops down low in a way that’s tough to sing, and it has a few of my usual odd note choices. It was pretty clear, too, that I’d botched the tuning of the snare drum (all pingy and boxy – like a military snare. Not right for the song at all). But other than that, I was surprised by the production, in a good way.

The best decision I made in relation to the song was not to sing it. Instead, I asked my old schoolfriend Chris Martin to sing it. (This Chris Martin is not that Chris Martin; he can sing, for one thing.) Chris has a wider range than me, with more depth in the low end and more lung power; the slow tempo made hanging on to the end of some of the lines tricky for me, but it was no problem for Chris. I had enough sense to know when I was beaten and get a ringer in, and Chris sang it a hell of a lot better than I could have done, and he also added some lovely harmonies on the spot. Chris has lived in Qatar and now Texas for most of the years since; I really miss recording with him!

But there’s some other nice touches in there. Back in that period, I was recovering from a serious cardiac illness, living with my dad and working only part time. So I had a lot of time to write and record, and the space to leave gear set up in a spare bedroom that I didn’t have when I moved into a one-bed flat in London a few months later. Since I had two amps then, and the space to put them in, I developed a taste for stereo set-ups to record heavily tremolo rhythm parts: pan them hard left and right, and the effect is a little like a having a Leslie speaker that you’re in the middle of.

A stereo-tremolo guitar can fill out a recording on its own, but I used it more for density and texture. The song was mainly piano-led – unusual for me since my abilities are so limited, but it needed a piano as it was based on a chord that’s tough to capture on guitar. I think it’s kind of a G major (right hand) superimposed on D minor (left hand), but I don’t exactly recall at this point. I added guitar arpeggios in the choruses, harmonised left and right, using open strings to expand the chords a little: a trick I still love now, and thought I’d started doing later. The drums are quite interesting in their way, too – very slow half-time feel, but with an 8th/16th note hi-hat part that I played with two hands (snare was right hand).

All of which is to say, it’s far from a great song, but it’s got more going for it than I would have remembered at this remove. It’s easy to forget about a lot of what you do if you’ve been writing a while, as I have; you’re more excited by your recent material and while you hang on to your favourite older songs – the ones that you still play live – you forget about the rest, or assume they’re no good. And while I definitely don’t rate this among the best 20 or even 30 songs I’ve written, it’s not actually a bad one.

I polished up the mix slightly, using close-miked snare samples to improve the drum sound (it’s a recording of the same snare drum, but tuned better, and velocity matched as close as I could manage), and updated the file that’s on my Soundcloud. All being well, it’s embedded below for the curious.