16
Aug 01

Consequences: Two Songs About Sin

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CLARENCE CARTER – “Making Love (At The Dark End Of The Street)”

HEFNER – “I Stole A Bride”

Something missing from pop, maybe: a sense of sin. Sins we have in multitudes, of course – red-capped anger, ice-wristed pride, pigtailed lust and so on. But sin, the balance of deed and motor of consequence, is lacking. Rock prefers karma, on the whole – more universal and benevolent, not to mention fashionably Eastern. The exception though is the cheating song, and the why of this is clear: sin is essentially about judgement, pop is often about pleasure. Judgement and pleasure meet at the instant of the unfaithful kiss.

So Clarence Carter, with a voice like the roll of barrels, and Darren Heyman, with a voice like a damp kitchen in winter, come together as condemned men, and sing as if they know it. But sin is a deep thing, too base and abstract to confront directly (while staying interesting), and in both these songs the singer assumes a disguise in order to get the words out. For Carter, a Southern preacher. For Heyman, rather remarkably, the Trojan prince Paris.

The switches “I Stole A Bride” makes from the Helen myth to the shabby life of the 1990s indieboy are startling and odd. The gawky bathos of a lyric like “And was it her who wrote / “PORN IS WOMAN HATRED” on my overcoat / Christ, I need that coat” sits awkwardly with the Homeric decorations scattered through the song (swans and geese, big ships, princes and silver swords). But they rub off on one another too. The modern-day bride-stealer is puffed-up by association with myth-stuff. And also you’re reminded that while Helen has entered folklore for good as an archetype of beauty, her lover Paris skulks on folklore’s sidelines, the original infatuation junkie.

Paris’ dilemma and fate are forgotten, but they’re what really link ancient and modern: the sense of compulsion and dread the cheater feels. In Hefner’s song the emotional punch comes from the singer’s awful double realisation that not only will his affair inevitably destroy him, but that the woman he has stolen will not love him anyway. And a third, flickery, realisation behind these: that this changes nothing.

Sin is an equation: action and reaction, and neither side is negotiable. Clarence Carter’s sermon on infidelity never admits to the possibility of free will. Every creature on Earth, from mosquitoes upwards, likes “makin’ love”, and the way Carter says those words leaves you in no doubt that the urge under discussion is every bit as resistable as gravity. That urge is indiscriminate about how and who it strikes, for humans just as for the cows and mosquitoes. So you can hardly escape infidelity, but it comes at a price.

Carter’s voice is rich, and friendly, and wonderfully earthy, and he takes his time – three minutes or so – saying his piece. It’s a funny piece, too – a little bit dirty, full of home truths. The audience hear themselves in it, and laugh along, until Carter starts to sing and what comes out isn’t a preacher’s avuncular drawl but a dread baritone growl, and then the song flips in on itself and the audience melt away and you’re left with one man face to face with his sin: “They’re gonna find us, they’re gonna catch us, O Lord”. More is done in these three ludicrous minutes and thirty pitiless seconds than in the span of many soul men’s careers – the rest of Carter’s perhaps included. Because ‘soul’, often taken to mean the core of a man, something strong, also means something perpetually in jeopardy, at risk of being lost. And Carter sounds like he’s singing with that in mind.

Carter has crack players and a studio orchestra to back him up: Hefner has indie scratch-and plod, though “I Stole A Bride”‘s climax is almost as satisfying as “Making Love”‘s. Anyway, the instrumental paucity of a lot of indie records need not be a listener’s curse – it helps you keep in mind that indie, like soul, is often a singer’s genre. All of Darren Heyman’s allusions and intentions would come to nothing if he didn’t have the voice he does – quavering, sneering, a jumble of ugly vowels, the throat-and-tongue incarnation of desperate sexual bitterness (at least when the material’s good). In “I Stole A Bride” he sings “I’ve lived a lie” and he draws “lie” shudderingly out, until the thing he’s owning up to becomes the thing he seems to be clinging on to.

Helen of Troy, in a last and little-reported twist in the myth, was herself a phantom: the ‘real’ Helen spent the Trojan War in Egypt, sewing – a nasty commentary by some embittered Greek on how we idealise what we love. But as soon as Paris siezes the phantom Helen, she might as well be real: it is the action (itself as inescapable as a mosquito’s mating urge) which sets the inevitable in train. And this is why sin and pop so rarely mix: my hunch is that pop dislikes the inescapable, dislikes the notion of consequences. Pop is a sweetshop of situations, attitudes, experiences – some sour, to be certain, but none you can’t turn your back on. To listen to pop is to play-act your way through a bottomless dress-up chest of possibilities: to feel a sense of sin is to feel possibilities hardening into dooms. So I might listen to these songs as vicariously as ever, I might wallow in Heyman or Carter’s superbly-acted dread, but the thing that makes me rewind them is the reminder that there are things that cannot be rewound.

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