If last week’s album, Nevermind, transported me back to my fourteen year old self’s bedroom, Central Reservation moves me on eight years, and five bedrooms later, to a large, cold, draughty room I was sharing with my girlfriend of the time while in the final year of my degree. Her copies of Central Reservation and Daybreaker among the records that we were both happy to have on in the background (Shania Twain and Throwing Muses, on the other hand, were, um, bones of contention. Which of us preferred each of these is left as an exercise for the reader) and hearing Central Reservation again for the first time in a long time was a slightly disconcerting experience.
I’m not sure I’ve listened to it at all in the intervening fifteen or more years, but the opening track, Stolen Car, sounds like an old friend whom I’ve inexplicably forgotten to keep in touch with. It’s the best song on the album, with a very distinctive cello-like lead guitar from Ben Harper, though listening to it again in the light of my current day job, it sounds considerably darker, from a lyrical perspective, than I remember it being. At the time, I had just thought of it as a song about a former partner showing up out of the blue and discombobulating the narrator by his presence, but listening again “one drink too many/a joke gone too far/ I see your face drive like a stolen car” he sounds like a rather nastier piece of work than I had realised at the time.
It’s followed by Sweetest Decline which provides a rather neat illustration of a point made by one of the guests on the Slate Audio Book Club a couple of months back, considering Bob Dylan’s song lyrics in the light of his Nobel Prize, about how song lyrics are not poetry, but something slightly different. Because a singer has tools that a poet does not: they get to control the delivery of each line. Think of all the different ways you could say “How does it feel? To be on your own/ With no direction home/ Just like a rolling stone”. What might appear like a tired cliché, or worse, as meaningless doggerel on the page, can be made to work in a song. In this case: “What’s the use in regrets/ They’re just things we haven’t done yet.” It’s nonsense. , the kind of thing that might appear on one of those awful motivational posters, but which doesn’t ascend to the heights of cliche as it’s not even true. But because of the way Beth Orton delivers the line, it doesn’t matter. Because she does have a very distinctive, affecting voice. I can’t quite put my finger on why this is – I could try throwing adjectives at the metaphorical wall, but suffice to say that I think she is a jazz singer singing folk songs.
On the subject of song lyrics, the title track, Central Reservation has a great opening line “Running down a central reservation in last night’s red dress, / And I can still smell you on my fingers and taste you on my breath” It’s one of the album’s stronger moments, though I’m not entirely convinced it’s so good as to merit the inclusion of two different versions: a fairly stripped back acoustic version and a more electronica-influenced version that I remember sounding quite cutting-edge at the time, but which now, unfortunately, sounds an awful lot like Dido…
Listening to this album as a whole again for the first time in a long time, though, it does feel a bit one-note in terms of its mood: It’s all low-key melancholia. And the songs themselves are a mixed bag. All easy on the ear, but I struggle to tell some of the later songs apart. Which one was Love Like Laughter? I think I might have got it confused with Pass in Time. I know that if I was to describe the record as coffee shop background music, it can’t help but sound negative, but I don’t mean it to be – it is very good background music, but that is what it is. The opening track aside, there is little that really grabbed my attention, but I liked the sound of her voice.
By the bye, Blood Red River brought back memories of one of my personal favourite mondegreens “Walrus people want what they can’t have…” On the subject of which, the ex-girlfriend with the Beth Orton CD also had a copy of Macy Gray’s On How Life Is and thought I was mad to think that she was singing about putting on goggles when her beloved wasn’t around.)
Highlights: Stolen Car, Central Reservation, Stars All Seem to Weep