“The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”
― Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The word ‘mannered’ has acquired quite a pejorative status in arts criticism; worse than “self-conscious”, not as bad as “pretentious.” Freaks is, by anyone’s reckoning, a spectacularly mannered album, but surprisingly this isn’t always to its detriment. The former members of The Wicker Players were still in some ways a theatrical act, and being stylised and affected was in a sense their raison d’être. Fighting against it just seemed to lead to still-born lounge act sincerity – so why not go with the flow instead?
To see what I mean, just compare Life Must Be So Wonderful with There’s No Emotion. Jarvis’s strained croon, having proved itself unsuitable for soul-baring honesty, sounds altogether more fitting for the drama described here. After all, where better to sound false than a song about losing all feeling? Taking the lyrics on face value they seem to be tragic, but with this sort of treatment “no emotion” sounds more like a liberating concept.
It wouldn’t be entirely fair to say that Jarvis is on top form here though. The croon is absurdly limiting at times, and there are moments when it sounds like his voice is about to crack. He simply hasn’t got the chops to pull it off. Fortunately Candida’s utterly lovely harmonies on the chorus pull the vocal back from the brink, and by the “holding hands” section Jarvis has ridden the scales up to break into his natural range, though he does have a few unfortunate dips afterwards.
The rest of the group also sound like they are giving things their best shot. There’s some nice understated country guitar (of all things) leading us off, and though things do seem to sag and plod a little towards the middle, there follows a quite lovely little instrumental break and the climax leaves everything on the best possible note, all things considered.
In a wonderful little muttered aside Jarvis declares that “this is where the story starts” and launches into one of the best passages on the album. “Holding hands that hold you forever” – how better to sum up this wretched relationship, the safety of being a prisoner? Forget the melodramatic declaration of dead hearts – this is honesty. He needs to get out, but he doesn’t know the way and he’s scared. Great stuff.