Before my bed a pool of light –
Can it be hoar-frost on the ground?
Looking up, I find the moon bright;
Bowing, in homesickness I am drowned. – Li Bai (701 – 762AD)
“The barbarians are inside the gate. They’re playing Muzak in Jenners.” – Letter in The Scotsman, 2007.
I received a CD of ‘Separations’ one Christmas in the mid-90s. My family were staying at a relative’s house and their stereo was hidden in a nook above a full-piano-sized 1970s electric organ, possibly a Hammond, with switches that produced backing beats like “waltz” and “rhumba”, another to adjust the tempo, and a series of long wooden foot pedals, the use of which escapes me. As I played the CD and we reached the climax of track 4 – the title track, no less – the swirling mass of strings suddenly disappeared to be replaced with the cheapest possible Casiotone beat, cheaper, in fact, than one I’d been playing on the organ before I even put the CD on.
Was this a joke? It seemed likely. Cheap-sounding keyboards and Muzak were a common butt of jokes in the early 90s, from Rimmer’s enthusiasm for “Reggie Wilson’s Lift Music Classics” on Red Dwarf to stand-up rants about supermarket background music. It was just one of those things which seemed to universally be regarded as ‘bad’, and it wasn’t until I listened to Denim’s ‘Novelty Rock’ a couple of years later that the pieces finally clicked. These sounds are ours – they might sound “naff”* but they are all around us nonetheless, we’ve grown up with them – and I bet a 1980s suburban Proust would maintain that they have the power to be as evocative as anything else. They are ours to use. Admittedly, this will only get you laughed at, but if you want to be a pop star “ridicule is nothing to be scared of.” Audiences are there to be challenged, after all.
That one moment dominates my memory of the song so much that it was hard to focus on anything else – which in fact might be a failing, as there’s plenty to admire here. Built from that bare chord progression, and originally called “Eastern Eurodisco”, by the time it was recorded ‘Separations’ had morphed into a sprawling beast of a song, with a cyclical operatic structure in place of the usual verse-chorus-verse and a complex storyline with roots in romantic baladeering and gothic fiction – all presented in less than five minutes.
The first two minutes are dominated by Russell’s Slavic violin – here built up in stature to something like a towering Stravinsky requiem, performed at the funeral of a beloved Transylvanian monarch. The rest of the strings (unbelievable these are just samples) soon join him, and as they are building to a climax Jarvis begins his melodramatic telling of a story of separated, lonely lovers. She’s deserted, all alone.
Then we break down into that Casiotone rhythm, and after a few moments the rest of the group join in, and we continue with “him” – He’s in a new town, getting off a train (haven’t we heard that somewhere before?), filled with optimism and determined to forget the girl he’s left behind. Things quickly turn bad, though, life and nightlife are shallow and unsatisfying, “the drinks won’t do a thing for him / but revive some stupid memories” – and looking to the sky he sees the same moon “she” is looking at.
It’s no wonder that this (often forgotten) song ended up being the title of the album – it seems emblematic of all the changes that the band were going through at the time. Slavic baladeering morphs into suburban lust, gothic romance into electro-pop, cathartic melodrama into that 1990s sense of nostalgic un-belonging. Each side sounds captivating – the first perhaps even more so, thanks to what must be Russell’s greatest single performance. As a centrepiece to the album, as a bridge between the two halves, it does the job perfectly, and while it’s too damn odd to be anyone’s favourite, it’s nevertheless a genuinely passionate, atmospheric piece of work.
*Isn’t it funny how, in 2013, the word ‘naff’ now sounds, well, naff.