#121 – Acrylic Afternoons

28 Dec

drawn curtains

Acrylic Afternoons (His ‘n’ Hers, 1994)
Acrylic Afternoons (John Peel Session, 5/3/1993)
Acrylic Afternoons (live film, 1994)
Acrylic Afternoons (live film, Brixton Academy 21/12/1995)
Acrylic Afternoons (live film, Paris Olympia 13/11/2012)
Acrylic Afternoons (live reading, Rough Trade 5/12/2011)
Acrylic Afternoons at Pulpwiki

“When people have sex in songs, it’s done in a glossy way, or in a Prince way – ‘I can shag 24 women in a single night’ – but never in a realistic way, like ‘I came after 30 seconds’, so I just wanted to write about it in a matter-of-fact manner. Maybe English people like the thought of it being forbidden, a little naughty, but it’s no good being reserved about it. You can’t have sex reservedly – you know, a bit detached – and that goes against the English character.”

– Jarvis Cocker in Melody Maker, 1993

“Well cut Windsmoor flapping lightly,
Jacqmar scarf of mauve and green
Hiding hair which, Friday nightly,
Delicately drowns in Drene;
Fair Elaine the bobby-soxer,
Fresh-complexioned with Innoxa,
Gains the garden – father’s hobby –
Hangs her Windsmoor in the lobby,
Settles down to sandwich supper and the television screen.”

– John Betjeman ‘Middlesex’

“We’re now in a semi-detached house in a cul-de-sac somewhere on the outskirts of Sheffield….” It’s telling, is it not, that Jarvis feels the need to set the scene with extra observations like these when introducing live renditions of ‘Acrylic Afternoons’. It’s a song about a dream, in a dream, and dreams have a setting; a time, a place, a moment, a mise-en-scène.

On His ‘n’ Hers no such narration is needed to begin the story – instead we have a set of ghostly, ethereal sounds, and the echoed voices of children playing outside. These effects don’t set the mood so much as the idea that we’re in a dream. Creating this 20 seconds of sound turned out to be a more complicated task than expected, and ended up costing the group a fair amount of studio time.

“Originally, this consisted of a piece known as “The Tunes Of Evil”, a random, unsettling noise conjured up out of this old analogue synth. As soon as we’d committed it to tape, strange things started happening in the studio. The mixing desk blew up, the multi-track for “Joyriders” disintegrated and we had to piece it back together by clever jiggerypokery. Ed Buller developed strange pains in his back and generally, the vibe went bad. So we had to destroy this music, but the engineer erased the wrong track. Obviously, “The Tunes Of Evil” didn’t want to die. The piece you hear at the beginning of “Acrylic Afternoons” is different and, as far as I know, safe.”*

Even without this mythology, the intro is creepy enough on its own – but then the dark, rumbling SFX are interrupted by a few jabs of the keyboard motif, and off we go into a steady-but-undancable, feverish rhythm. Like the best of Pulp’s work it doesn’t have any real sonic parallels – a simple enough musical concept which is still hard to pin down. Steve’s bassline is the real driving force – an urgent, dangerous thing, redolent of dark desires. Russell’s violin circles around, sometimes repeating Candida’s keyboard, sometimes breaking free and buzzing about like an angry wasp trapped in the sitting room. This is particularly notable as Ed Buller for once managed to incorporate it into his vision for the song, demonstrating that their two approaches weren’t fundamentally incompatible – though he kept him low in the mix. Altogether, the whole sounds like a series of musical moments linked by the overarching narrative of a pursuit, perhaps like the one in ‘Being Followed Home’ – but now instead of being the prey, we are joyously part of the chase.

It’s a dream, then, and that’s how we started; with “a small child in dungarees who caught his hands in the doors of the Paris metro.”** Then our narrator wakes up, or perhaps he doesn’t – everything after this point seems equally dreamlike. We’re transported to another world – the clearest picture yet of the suburban section of the sexualized city, a place Jarvis expresses equal parts lust and repulsion towards – this ambivalence being perhaps the most important theme of ‘His ‘n’ Hers’. Here the suburbs (South London or Sheffield, it doesn’t really matter) are stuck in a temporal bubble; a world where it is and always has been 4.30 on an eternally sunny July afternoon. The imagery here is vivid, startlingly so – “Net curtains blowing slightly in the breeze / Lemonade light filtering through the trees / It’s so soft and it’s warm / Just another cup of tea please.” Put simply, it’s as evocative as any poem I know, condensing atmosphere, passions, culture and synthetic-fabric-based fetishes into tight stanzas that flow together organically.

It’s a “sexy” song, too, of course, but nothing really explicit happens until we get to the “pink quilted eiderdown…” and even then the almost ‘Carry On’ level of smut it contains is neutralised by the utter lack of a wink or a nod. Jarvis sounds completely sincere in his rapture, and at times is so carried away that he sounds like a breathy nuisance phone-caller. Elsewhere he loses control entirely and embarks on a series of vocal gymnastics – raw, animalistic squeals & squeaks which, again, could be hilarious if they weren’t played so absolutely straight. This could be his best ever vocal performance.

We’ve dealt with quite a few constructed characters on this blog, and there will be plenty more, but with this dream, this fantasy, the woman is subsumed by the place and the moment. She is merely a type, and at the end she is a plural, another single mother in an identical house, having an identical affair. Jarvis isn’t important either; he’s just another visiting lover. The dream isn’t about people then, it’s about the feeling of the moment, the place. Acrylic Afternoons is a hymn to that afternoon in suburbia, a thematic manifesto for the album, and it will always remain in that bubble, delirious, enraptured in the moment.

*This sounds quite like a famous (but possibly partially apocryphal) anecdote about Brian Wilson starting to lose his mind during the recording of ‘Smile’ –

“Yeah,” said Brian on the way home, an acetate trial copy or “dub” of the tape in his hands, the red plastic fire helmet still on his head. “Yeah, I’m going to call this ‘Mrs. O’Leary’s Fire’ and I think it might just scare a whole lot of people.”
As it turns out, however, Brian Wilson’s magic fire music is not going to scare anybody—because nobody other than the few people who heard it in the studio will ever get to listen to it. A few days after the record was finished, a building across the street from the studio burned down and, according to Brian, there was also an unusually large number of fires in Los Angeles. Afraid that his music might in fact turn out to be magic fire music, Wilson destroyed the master.
“I don’t have to do a big scary fire like that,” he later said. “I can do a candle and it’s still fire. That would have been a really bad vibration to let out on the world, that Chicago fire. The next one is going to be a candle.”
— Jules Siegel, ‘Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!’

**A reference to this sign, with a rabbit rather than a child:

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