It’s impossible to write about Edwyn Collins objectively anymore. Edwyn’s personal achievements since the debilitating stroke he suffered in 2005 have all but overshadowed his musical output since, yet there’s no way to talk about his new material without referencing his health problems which, as Best Fit’s unofficial Collins correspondent, makes writing articles like this a pain in the ass.
Home Again, recorded before his illness, will always be seen as a spookily prescient signpost to a more simplistic approach, while 2010′s Losing Sleep saw pals like Johnny Marr and Alex Kapranos popping up for collaborations. As such, with all but its closing track (more on which later) self-composed and -arranged, Understated is, in a sense, Edwyn Collins’ first true solo effort on his road to recovery.
Commencing with an unexpected squall of guitar noise, before giving way to an equally-surprising Mariachi horn refrain, ‘Dilemma’ is a low key opener that works as the complete reverse of the previous album’s stomping Wigan Casino-throwback title track. The ever-self-analytical lyrics pivot on the bone-dry wordplay of its chorus (“Dilemma! That’s me, that’s me all over…”) and, while you can hear Collins strain to reach the rambling melody’s higher notes, it’s still a bracing start. Then again, if Losing Sleep was an album concerned with kicking out the jams, then the strutting backbeats and sultry Hammond organs of Understated‘s soulful first side are all about restraint; the Stax-tastic Temptations-referencing ‘Baby Jean’ is a State-of-the-Edwyn address about the things that make his life worth living (“I’ve got to find a way to understand the world”), while both ‘Too Bad (That’s Sad)’ and ‘Carry On, Carry On’ are stomping blue-eyed classics in the making, the former a lovable throwaway, the latter finding Edwyn people-watching, with bafflement and wonder at the mundane interactions of everyday life.
When Understated starts living up to its title, however, it all goes south; the best moments of the album work by adding a more considered approach to material that, in the wrong hands, could sound slapdash. However, the albums least remarkable moments are plodding at best and mawkish at worst, the main offender being a rendition of Rod McKuen‘s ‘Love’s Been Good to Me’. By all rights, it should be perfect – an American standard that’s been passed from, amongst others, Frank Sinatra to the ever-capable hands of Johnny Cash on his posthumous (and, indeed, namesake) A Hundred Highways album. Yet – and this is more the song’s fault than anything else – Collins’ rendition (and its place at Understated‘s close) suggests a finality that is clearly nowhere near coming. “I feel alive, and I feel reborn”, Collins repeats during the breathtaking chorus of the pitch-perfect Velvets homage ‘Forsooth’, so why choose to end the album with a song that undercuts that sentiment completely?
One thing that can be said for Understated is that it’s as honest a record as Edwyn has ever made; the shuffling country ramble ‘Down the Line’ (the best track of its kind on the album) makes this abundantly clear in its almost apologetic chorus – “Just understand, I’ve lost some ground”. As with its predecessor, the album is as much an act of occupational therapy as it is artistic expression, its lyrical introspection more for its writer’s benefit than the listener’s, and as such, it’s hard to discuss in the same terms as other releases. There has never been as high-profile a figure as Edwyn Collins whose medical problems have debilitated his work to this extent. Nor has there ever been an artist who has been so determined to keep working in the face of such personal adversity. Meanwhile, each successive show I’ve seen Collins play, from his comeback gig at Dingwalls in 2007 to a recent slot plugging his last record in Leeds, has been filled with minor triumphs – the revelations of some of his recent work, his reemerging talent and (glib though it sounds) increasing mobility – although also no few moments of worry that maybe Edwyn has been trying to do too much too soon.
Nevertheless, all that’s really to be said is this: Understated is everything you could hope for from a new Edwyn Collins LP – the sound of a man on the mend.