Week 32: Home Thoughts From Abroad

If I rule out Alvin Lucier on the grounds that I am Sitting in a Room is not really music, then Clifford T Ward is, I think the first artist that has come up during this project whom I have not heard of at all. Yes, I wasn’t quite sure if Childish Gambino was a cartoon character and had confused Frank Ocean with Frank Turner, but I have to admit to feeling slightly discombobulated to find a 1970s singer-songwriter whose name means nothing at all to me.

A quick look on Wikipedia tells me that he had one hit of sorts in 1973 with Gaye, and then seems to have had a low-key but lengthy career, releasing his last record in the mid-1990s before dying in 2001 – so he is not someone who missed out on greater renown because he died young.

So was he unfairly forgotten?  If you’re a subscriber to Hugh Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, is there a universe not far from here where Ward is talked of alongside Nick Drake, or, failing that, at least maybe Cat Stevens or Donovan? (tangent time:there is a musical connection here, Hugh Everett’s son, Mark Everett is the man behind Eels and wrote a really rather good book about his mentally absent father and his mentally ill sister, called Things the Grandchildren Should Know) Or was pop culture’s collective memory right to discard him? Was he just not that good?

First things first: Did this sound as terminally uncool in 1973 as it does, at least to my ears, now? There is something painfully earnest, and desperately provincial about it. Wikipedia informs me that, before his musical career, he worked for a while as an English teacher. Which goes to show that the past is a foreign country. It’s hard to imagine someone succeeding in the music business in their late 20s having first spent several years in teaching now (though maybe I’m wrong: Maybe Taylor Swift used to be a PE teacher and Stormzy taught maths.) But back in the 70s, Sting and Mark Knopfler both did it. As it happens, Sting’s wife, Trudie Styler, was among Clifford Ward’s pupils.

There are a number of things that place this record in a particular place in time. The mid 1970s was probably about the last point in time when there were significant numbers of young women called Gaye to write songs about.  As 1973 really wasn’t so long after 1967, it’s hard to hear The Dubious Circus Company as anything other than a rather pale echo of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – although it deserves bonus points for the elephant noises. And somehow I can’t imagine anyone penning a line quite so mawkish as ‘Our love is just another broken down motor car. I need your help to get it back on the road. ‘ now.

Despite, or perhaps because, of his past as an English teacher He’s not much of a lyric writer – and nowhere is this more evidence than on Home Thoughts From Abroad. In name-checking Robert Browning and William Wordsworth (I’m more of a Robert Frost man myself) I can’t help but think he is drawing attention to his own shortcomings. Another of his pupils was Karl Hyde, whose Born Slippy is a great example of show don’t tell, an abstract stream of consciousness paean to a big night out on the town, that his teacher might have done well to learn from.

But the song-writing is, where the lyrics aren’t getting in the way, really rather good in places. Wherewithal is a real earworm, and its easy to imagine it on an early Belle and Sebastian album, save for the fact that Ward was actually a much better singer. Time, the Magician is a catchy pop song. It is when he attempts social commentary and humour, as on Crisis that things go  adrift (although I could have lived without his efforts to find works to rhyme with Gaye, too) Oh and godding. It might just be my personal prejudices, but religiosity in popular song rarely works well (see also my review of Coat of Many Colours) and The Traveller is a toe-curling excuse to hit the skip button.
Actually, as well as the Belle and Sebastian connection (I wonder whether Stuart Murdoch listened to Clifford Ward or whether they both just emerged, at different points, from the same tradition of British musical whimsy – I was going to say English whimsy and cite See Emily Play but I suspect Murdoch would object) it occurs to me that there’s a line that can be drawn between this album and the rather baroque, orchestral pop of Sufjan Stevens -a rare exception to my dislike for godding in popular song.

So, my conclusion: If this was the best he managed, then I’m not entirely surprised that he was forgotten. It’s not that, to pick a couple of 70s singer-songwriters I am aware of, that Donovan or Melanie were really any better, but more than while Home Thoughts… has a certain, limited charm, it doesn’t really stand out as being any better than a lot of other very similar music from the last forty or so years.

Highlights: Time, the Magician; Wherewithal

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