A songwriter can create pop music, or music considered art. Either is possible with enough work and talent. But creating both ... that takes something extraordinary.
I love pop music. Having said that, I find 95% of whatís out there to be completely wretched. I respect the honesty to be found in certain brands of rock or rap, but theyíre lost and now Iím found, so I have no interest in the dialogue that their fans engage in through their iPods and car radios. And I donít hear any major art beyond the emotional suggestiveness of the sonic landscape productions, those huge washes of color and power that make unimportant songs sound important. Just as many movies have little to offer beyond their Computer Generated Images, most pop songs are little more than their production. What I want and continually look for in any kind of music is a good set of lyrics hung on a good melody sitting on nice chord changes propelled by a fiery rhythm of any kind, whether it be slow fast subtle or loud. And then I look for something else that almost nobody includes in their music: things happening that interest me. I want all kinds of things along the roadway to keep me awake, and they can come from anywhere, even the production or the way some musicians play. Certain lyric and melody marriages are so good that I donít need anything else, but theyíve been scarce in the last twenty years.
Then thereís Nik Kershaw, a Brit whoís been making highly melodic and imaginative music since the eighties. Kershaw is an engine of creative talent, a graceful lead guitarist with a high, soulful voice, and a man invested with a ridiculously developed sense of rhythm. And although heís only 5í4Ē tall, his lyric honesty makes him a towering giant in my mind.
ďSomebody Loves You,Ē the first song on his 1999 album 15 Minutes, is a song about his stardom with some musings about its possible absence thrown in. A line that startled me,
What will I say if I canít talk about myself?
would have raised my interest if all his other music I had heard in the 80s hadnít. I thought, hereís a down home boy who survived the glam world. As a career musician Iíve worked with a lot of large egos. Good looks and talent will turn many reasonable people in the vicinity of those lucky folks into groveling enablers. I know nothing about Kershawís ego, but as a young man he looked like a god, and as an older one heís still trim and smart-looking, but perhaps his physical stature was a godsend to his humility. Anyway, this line and many others made me feel like I would enjoy a drink with him. Heís probably a good listener.
I was introduced to him in the early eighties by Joel Carr, a scary guitarist living in Baton Rouge. Joel thought I would like Kershaw not because of his guitar playing, which can command but seldom seeks attention, but because his music was smart. Like Joel. Iíve been a fan ever since.
Kershawís music is incredibly good at the basic elements of pop music Ė the musical elements, not the cultural, that be damned, but melody and rhythm. His melodies are by turns seductively memorable or inarguable like pop demands, and his rhythmic sense knows no bounds, and in both elements he often displays some serious sophistication that most people wonít notice. Added to this is something extremely rare indeed: harmony beyond the basics Ė way beyond. When I use the word ďharmonyĒ in the context of pop, Iím not referring to a chorus of voices, rather the chord changes from his guitar that his melodies sit within. Itís the thing that the McCartney-Lennon team was so good at. Like them, Kershawís sense of harmony is highly adventurous but again, goes unnoticed by uncritical listeners. His progressions are almost always made with the garden variety chords that any beginner can learn from a book. And from those three elements, melody, rhythm and harmony, he crafts and produces songs that keep me interested in what will happen next. Itís hard to keep me interested anymore, but I can listen to this manís music for hours, and sometimes do. I recently made a three-hour drive and listened to two of his albums nonstop. Thatís almost impossible for me to do.
Those three elements exist in all music. Pop is usually good Ė when it is Ė at two of them. (Iíll talk about his lyrics later.) The Beatles were so successful with critics because they were good at all three, undeniably good (and later wrote seductively provocative lyrics). When they retired they left a void, which surprised me. I expected that someone would pick up where they left off, and several artists did, but none consistently Ė although people like Stevie Wonder and Billy Joel made a lot of music that sucked people in with songs that cooked on all three burners. Steely Dan did also, but they were heavy into jazz chords, and Kershaw is not.
One of the most striking things about Kershawí s melodies, aside from how good they are, is his phrasing. For the uninitiated, phrasing is how a singer or musician plays with a melody: starting it or a portion of it early or late, clipping or drawing out individual notes, doing something fabulous with a three-syllable word when the melody seemed to allow only one ... there are as many ways to phrase a melody as there are to say something. Actors face these choices when deciding how to play each and every line of dialogue theyíre given; classical violinists distinguish themselves largely by how they will phrase a melodic line that is carved in stone. Nik Kershaw phrases extraordinarily well as a singer Ė he lists as his favorites several masters of phrasing such as Stevie Wonder, Mel Torme, Al Jarreau and Joni Mitchell Ė but where he truly shines is in the way he phrases his melodies as he writes them. Listen to the song Promises from Youíve Got to Laugh; listen as many times as it takes until you think you can sing along with him on the chorus. Perhaps after four or five times youíll think you can do it easily. Chances are youíre in for a shock.
Many pop artists do this, but not so well.
Songwriters often struggle with the effort to make their lyrics tumble out within their melodies in a way that sounds effortless. They may have too many syllables to fit the melodic line.
There was a young poet named Dan
His poems, they just wouldnít scan
Again and again
When he got to the end
He found that he had more words than he could jam into the last line.
If Nik Kershaw had recited that limerick, it wouldnít have sounded clumsy. It wouldnít sound like a limerick anymore, but possibly you wouldnít notice Ė or care if you did. Sometimes he shifts his melody around to where the accents fall on words in unusual places, which should result in an uncomfortable sound. It doesnít. Why not? Because he knows what heís doing and heís fucking good at it. This is something that cannot be either taught or further explained any more than talent can be.
I imagine many karaoke singers in British pubs trying to sing Kershawís big hit, Wouldnít it be Good, and flubbing it unmercifully. That song became a #4 hit in England, and in truth it has chorus that is easy to sing if one can carry a tune at all. The verses, however, are written within a downright devilish phrasing, as far as pop music goes.
Itís possible that you can listen to his music at this location, http://www.kershaw.net/radiok/ I canít yet, but thatís a sad story about Real Player and my particular Mac. You can find samples at Amazon, I think, but itís best to just go to his site and download an album, perhaps his latest, Youíve Got To Laugh. The first song from that one, Canít Get Arrested, may come up at his siteís home page; itís quite nice but doesnít display the arresting qualities Iím talking about, even though youíll have a hell of a time getting it out of your head. But to better understand this phrasing issue, I recommend Wouldnít It Be Good and Promises Promises as well as one from 15 Minutes: the bridge/middle section of Fiction, which is as beautiful a thing as youíre likely to hear in your life. Also, the powerful song Your Brave Face is a model well-phrased writing.
To my ears, Kershaw had three periods, like Picasso. I donít have middle period albums Radio Musicola and The Works, but I have some of the their content from a retrospective called Then & Now, which also contains four songs not found on any of the other albums.
His first period, in my mind at least, are the two 1984 albums Human Racing and The Riddle. This was a time of dazzlilng creativity not only in the writing but with song forms and arrangements. In several songs he changes keys every few seconds and does it extremely well, and then follows such verses with highly melodic and stable choruses. His melodic skills are no less stunning than in later years, and apparently they were with him from the start. Heís the kind of artist that makes you want to hear some work from his teens. Synthesizers and drum machines dominated pop music at that time, and his use of them as the main instruments could be sad if he wasnít so rhythmic and audacious. The tones are analog fat, the only kind accessible in the early eighties. There are noises out front in the tracks, but they jump out at the listener in well chosen places. The two albums are quite different; Human Racing is like a fireworks display above a disco, and The Riddle is heavier with more guitars, and the songs are more reined in. The first album, wild as it is, sounds dated now. The second does not; in the eighties I thought it beat the crap out of almost everything, and it still does, even now.
His middle period, from what I can tell from the few selections I have, displays songs that at least sound like they were written on guitar instead of being assembled from electronica, a process he has continued to the present. Iím not crazy about what Iíve heard. The restless creativity is there but calmer. In this phase he sounds like he was competing with the dominant music in 80ís England, bands like Duran Duran, whom I never liked because there wasnít anything there but style and a few of the basic elements of music. Although Kershawís work from this time doesnít interest me much, it was a hell of a lot better than that. He was singing about the void inherent in materialism, and Duran Duran was that void. But I have yet to hear from The Big Man any song from that time that even approached the insane drive, creativity, rhythmic intensity and production precision of the song Don Quixote or several others from the earlier album The Riddle.
His later period, the albums 15 Minutes, To Be Frank and Youíve Got to Laugh, show a taming of his busy ideas within song forms in favor of a mature or more classic musicality, although there is plenty of unexpectedness everywhere, which is the main appeal of his music for me. In effect this period is a continuation of the the middle one, only much more refined. As in that period, the surprises arrive gracefully without turning sharp corners; his moves are still bold, but creep upon you with a tap on the shoulder first rather than a slap in the face. The noises he loves are now everywhere, layered within his many guitar parts and the same analog synth sounds that he used from the beginning. For me, these three albums, with the addition of The Riddle, are four of the greatest collections of songs, performances, production and sheer audacity in the history of post-Beatles pop music. And again, I must stress that I use that term to mean music created by people who did not study jazz; rather I think of what can come out of a determined person with a basic chord book and a shitload of talent on tap. A songbook of this repertoire would not be that hard to read. A great number of the titles require little more than a capo and knowing your way around the key of G.
You can skip this next paragraph, itís mainly about production techniques, time changes and other tools in Kershawís shed, and itís mostly for any musicians who are still reading this.
Production: The guy is from the 80ís and he likes synthesizers. I play folk music and few folk musicians have patience with those things, but I donít care, I just like music, and he makes stunning musical use of them Ė but he also loves noise or sounds, and the sonic landscaping is a bit much for my tastes. NK lists RadioHead as an influence, so we get lots of amorphous texture in his work. He uses it for poetic effect to greater or lesser degrees, such as in Find Me an Angel from 15 Minutes, in which we get something that sounds like boulders falling inside an enormous hollow cave. This is a brilliant, beautiful and haunting song, very sad, and the noises definitely add to the haunting quality, but I donít need cinematic touches like these to appreciate the inherent poetry of a truly great pop song Ė not all the way through it. I donít need them, but, having said that, Iíll take them from him: thereís something relentlessly glorious about his crunches, swirlings and wah-wahed street rumblings. I accept them, fascinated all the while, but Iíll say here that the noise is befitting a more avant-guard lyricist. Kershawís not commenting on the world or the human condition in a vague, angst-riddled manner, rather he bares his soul and its concerns in plain-speak. But heís a great producer who just likes sonic landscaping, so Iíll take what he gives me, considering thereís so little good music out there. Iím fascinated by how he piles on all the density. Layers and layers of textures, guitars and synth parts, but half of them are in service to the rhythm and whatever powerhouse, first-rate drummer heís hired. Kershaw calls the best drummers, and then plays most of everything else as if it were part of a second drum kit. In some songs, such as Already There from To Be Frank, there are breakdowns where layers of pads, guitars and flying pig noises are stripped away and youíre left with drums and other rhythm voices. This is fascinating to the ears, and also mind-boggling when you realize by its sudden absence just how much shit was going on, and how much funky stuff it had been riding on top of. And it pains me to admit it, but viewing the layers as they reenter after this breakdown also explains why the track felt so damn good. And those synths are not there just for pads, noises and rhythm extensions. Thereís a 4/4 song on The Riddle called Know How, the solo section of which is a heavy, Weather-Reportish piece of synthesized waltz music played over the track, 3 against 4. Itís fat as hell and belongs on the Heavy Weather album. K says he was in a fusion band (called Fusion) when he was starting out, and the repertoire was all those bitchiní Steely Dan and Weather Report songs. Not easy to play, and he claims not to know much about chords, but harmonic density is no mystery to him, nor do complex rhythms pose much of a threat. The song Old House, from Youíve Got to Laugh, is entirely in 5/4 time. Itís a stunning pop song, quite heavy; the drum track alone by his friend Simon Phillips is worth the admission price. K says on his site that he didnít know it was in 5/4 until he began recording.
Enough tech talk, though itís hard not to mention Brit engineering ....
Iím choosy. Meaningless lyrics waste my time, and I have a bad attitude about that. Kís lyrics are, for the most part, straightforward and well crafted. He loves to rhyme first and third lines as well as second and fourth, which forces more compromises and can sacrifice elements of the original intent. As to literary devices, he rarely plays games with your head Ė The Riddle is an intriguing song on first listen, but I read years ago of him admitting that it doesnít mean anything. Itís total nonsense, dummy lyrics just so he would have something to sing that day.That said, I find that he seldom hides anything and means what he says. I stay interested.
Here is the first verse and repeated chorus of Promises Promises:
Just one look at those baby brown eyes
And all is understood
Ainít no stopping you falling inside
And staying there for good
She wonít go doing those terrible things
Like messing with your heart
Pushing your buttons and pulling your strings
Sure thatís true, no sheíll never hurt you
Did you ever see a face like that
a picture of peace, a vision of honesty
Did you ever see anything so beautiful
So alive with promises, promises
After noting that he rhymes first and third lines as well as second and fourth, we notice that the saying heís playing with here is ďso alive with promise,Ē and once you get his subtle alteration you see a story of feminine manipulation. Then later he sings,
Ainít nobody as mighty and high (as you) to keep her safe from harm
and from this I detected a paternal choice of words, leading me to believe heís talking about a daughter. Iíve been told that little girls learn early to manipulate, possibly as compensation for less muscle mass or aggression. Then I find out he has three sons Ė no daughter. No, in this case heís speaking to a woman, but this mixup happened to me during several songs where I thought he was speaking of or to a young or teenaged girl Ė specifically, his progeny. Iím not going to dissect this perceived parental tone; I just find it interesting, and I stay interested. I listen to his lyrics. He makes me. I donít want fluff, and my new friend here avoids it as well, may blessings fall at his familyís feet.
And before I give you another parental lyric Ė kids donít read my site anyway Ė Iíll offer up the speculation that there is one thing that can ruin a career: growing up. Hereís a typical career arc Iíve seen: artist sings about girls etc., artist sings about domesticity and marriage, artist sings about being a parent. The career sails on while he sings to the girls who buy his records; it begins to slide when he sings the praises of settling down with one; and itís over when he sings to them as if he was Dad. At this point, heís irrelevant as far as pop culture goes, because most of the people who grew up with him Ė and followed the same domestic path Ė donít buy many records. Theyíre too damn busy.
Itís just an observation; I think K gave up on his pop stardom before his parental tone creeped in. Hereís the next lyric from Dad:
I love you my precious, I love you my son
Iím sorry for all the bad things that Iíve done in the past
But it happened so fast
It didnít quite go as Iíd planned
But I hope to God one day youíll understand
I think thatís terribly good. Very private yet very public. Sincere and courageous. Simple. I donít have kids, and that lyric Ė attached to a brilliant, almost gouging piece of music Ė chokes me up sometimes.
Kershawís other concerns are depression and its alleviation, celebrating simplicity, denying that simplicity exists, the bemoanful state of human affairs, the surprising aspects of romance, the humor of it, the impossibility of it, the high and mighty and other assorted assholes, and all the surprises of just being alive. He doesnít shy away from the occasional naughty word Ė people speak that way, donít they? Thereís a pile of songs about the banality of materialism, its deadening of the spirit What do you think of it so far?, and several songs about fantasy women, accent on the fantasy part: Sheíll come ... loving all the things youíve got / youíll be everything youíre not / when sheís around. And Donít be stupid, thatís so sad / Youíre old enough to be her dad. He writes of facing up to what you are: past the bathroom mirror / ignorance is bliss, they say; Or, You might be a Gershwin tune/you might be but youíre not or, Here you are / not what you wanted to be/ not a dream or a movie; and then of the irresponsibility of leadership on a grand scale: leaving our mistakes behind / out of sight is out of mind; of the common people: And you wonder why you always have to fight / for such an ordinary life; of friendship: And write me when you get there, donít forget the kid / Though I would never blame you if you did; of the dumbing down of his art form: it emanates from little boxes on the wall / and itíll soon be coming in disposable tin cans, Ė prescient there; and he often writes about about the one thing that cannot be absent from art for the masses: empathy: Bless your bountiful heart / Bless your fabulous , glorious, broken heart. And I wish I could put my arms around the world and make it better.
(He sometimes uses banalities, like ďchicken sandwich,Ē that poke up from his careful language like weeds, but he sings them so beautifully, and furthermore, he includes banalities for a reason: heís listing the contents of a dull life wherein somethingís missing. I question his use of things like that, but I wonít criticize it because they make him sound like the down-to-earth guy that he probably is Ė approachable, and I do hope to meet him someday. He might buy me a chicken sandwich.)
This is not high poetry, but itís not trying to be. Itís powerful rock Ďn roll from a thoughtful man who would be deeply ashamed if he thought you werenít getting his very best, his honest best. And speaking of honesty, he sings his later albums without restraining his working class accent. After years of hearing some guy sing his ass off, Iím now hearing a working class Brit sing his ass off. Good for him. Do my heroes Tom Waites and Steve Earl sing like they talk? I donít think so.
You can see by that last quoted lyric (from Times Like These) and others that heís sentimental. And proudly so, Iíd bet. The song Cloud Nine, featuring the brilliant Brit artist Imogen Heap (her real name, and download her song Hide and Seek right now) who later produced his brilliant song What It Is, is one of Kís many songs that I didnít like at first because of sentimentality, but his version of that maligned thing is bold. Heís sentimental to your face, and unafraid to be so, perhaps incapable. Itís rare to find an artist so aggressive, yet so at peace with emotions that seem the reverse of aggression. Itís unfashionable in pop music, and because of my conditioning Iím constantly failing to follow him down this path as he thunders through my ears like a steamroller with lyrics so empathic they would revive a dead cat, but I get suckered in eventually because some of us need an antidote for cynicism. This family guy is full of love, a dangerous thing in pop music unless itís thrown at a Girl or the World. Kershaw throws it into unlikely places. He bitches (only with more naked eloquence), but a song or two later you know he understands what youíre going through, because he tells you quite accurately. This is what bonds teenagers to their music, the sense that a singer knows them, is them. Heís probably just a nice chap all around, and this may be why Imogen Heap says in an interview ďIíve known him since I was seventeen, he was the first producer I worked with. I really, really like him and Iíve always really liked him.Ē
Nik Kershaw is an adult and writes eloquent songs about it. His characters own stuff like houses and cars, and no one is paying the bills for them. If youíre a typical reader of this site, no one is taking care of you either, so you might relate. And heíll talk to you from within the kind of music thatís so often impossible to get out of your head Ė as if heís descended from the Beatles Ė and you wonít mind it at all. Every time you listen youíll hear something new, as if for the first time. And youíll look at the CD in your hand or your iTunes bill, and youíll think Oh man. This was cheap.