If you know who Cardiacs are, your response to them generally falls into two camps - those who think they’re the best band in the history of music, and those who wish they had never existed. By all accounts, most music journalists fell into the latter camp. I may be one of the rare few who reside squarely (and uncomfortably) on the fence. All I really knew about them for a long time was that a) Blur adored them in the early days, b) Mumm-Ra (remember them?) pretty much sold their soul to be a landfill-Cardiacs, and c) they were A Bit Weird. Oh, and that - until about a year ago, at least - their records were impossible to get hold of without selling an organ.
My first real exposure to the strange world of Cardiacs was from, of all people, my driving instructor. In a chalet at ATP. Because, y’know, I’m the sort of person who goes to ATP with, amongst others, his driving instructor. Anyway, in the downtime between bands, we were raiding our respective iPods for something to soundtrack an hour of Pot Noodle consumption and heavy drinking, and Martin dug out the fourth Cardiacs album, A Little Man and a House and the Whole World Window. I spent the first minute of the first song was spent trying to work out why Martin was doing this to our chalet, and our neighbours. The second minute was spent slowly parsing the hooks and trying to get my head around what was going on in my ears. Eventually, my Fucking Journo fell off, and the album just happened to me; by the time closing track “The Whole World Window” rolled around, with its borderline conventional structure and melodramatic Bowiesque flourishes, I was enthralled. Then we went out to see Deerhunter or something and I forgot about Cardiacs for a bit, pretty much until the chance to write this review came around.
Cardiacs are a band who laugh in the face of conventional song structure and length, preferring to collage ideas in seemingly random order - mainly centred around cramming too many words into a melody, snatches of carnival and polka keyboards, and unexpected instrumental breaks. Sing to God, available on vinyl for the first time in its 18-year history, looms particularly large in the Cardiacalogue, chiefly because it’s a double. That’s an hour and a half of sudden shifts in tempo, volume, texture - and, like with all Cardiacs material, if you’re if the wrong mood, it can get a little bit…exhausting.
But flip that on its head a second - this is an album designed to keep the listener on their toes. You can’t let yourself get too comfortable - if you like the first thirty seconds of a song, there’s a very good chance it’ll get ripped out from under you, never to return. It’s a trepidation that gets strangely exciting after a while, reminding you just how easy it can be to get complacent with pop music. And, let’s face it, buried somewhere across these two gorgeous, limited edition slabs of vinyl, is genuine pop music. Albeit, pop music you can’t imagine anyone actually sitting down to write.
There’s no point going track-by-track on this one - this isn’t the kind of album you listen to. Sing to God is just something that happens to you. Tim Smith takes the kid-in-a-sweet-shop approach to writing songs, and you can hear the sheer malevolent glee in his voice on every song, pirouetting and contorting itself towards notes you know he can’t manage. But damned if he doesn’t pull it off. And if the happening gets a bit too much. take a break at the end of disc one, which peaks on a loop of the same compellingly off-kilter chord sequence that runs for an atypical four-minutes of stasis, before ending on a grand swell of strings, and the sound of someone laughing, possibly at the sound of something so normal.
Actually, stuff that no-track-by-track stuff - disc two opens with the nine-minute rock-and-roll symphony “Dirty Boy”. It’s a towering, strident beast - guitars are layered thick as molasses, seemingly using every chord ever invented, over a relentless roll of drums. “We will praise him,” runs its ‘chorus’, Smith yelps with hymnlike fervour - actually, for the first time on the album, seemingly singing to God. Smack bang in the middle of the album, it’s the sonic equivalent of the black obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Where did it come from? What does it do? You don’t know, and you’re scared to find out, but you can’t stop looking. Anyone awaiting conversion should start with this song. If you’re not convinced, you might not be prepared for the rest of the record. Or the rest of the Cardiacs’ career full stop.
No one was writing music like this in the Nineties - okay, Mansun came close with Six, but they never made a career out of songs like that, did they? And you can’t imagine Cardiacs ever having an “I Can Only Disappoint U” moment - and I doubt anyone has really ever tried since. With Tim Smith still recovering from a life-threatening heart-attack-and-stroke combination which befell him in 2008, sadly the man himself is in no position either. But with their work slowly coming back into circulation, now is as good a time as any to try and unravel their mystery before anyone else catches up.
Cardiacs, then. Eccentric? Disturbed? Genius?
Hmm. I don’t think the dictionary quite caught up either.