Saturday, May 10, 2014

Nik Kershaw, 15 Minutes (Eagle Records, 1999)

I’ve always been fascinated by just how securely music can fasten itself to a particular time and place.  Back in March of 1999, I bought Nik Kershaw’s brilliant album 15 Minutes at a funky little (and long-defunct) record shop called Sidewinder, which was located on St. Martin’s Court just off Leicester Square in central London.  The next day I took the Eurostar chunnel to visit some friends in Paris, and I listened to 15 Minutes on repeat non-stop for the entire duration of the three-hour train ride.  Ever since then, I’ve always associated the music on that CD with my one and only daytrip to the City of Light.  It’s hard for me to believe that the album was released 15 years ago now, although the journey itself does feel about that far removed in my memory.

I’d been a fan of Nik Kershaw’s earlier records, especially the English songsmith’s best-known track, “Wouldn’t It Be Good,” which was his only single to chart here in the U.S. back in 1984.  Over the three decades of his career since then, he’s released eight finely crafted studio albums, along with an acoustic greatest-hits collection.  I’ve always thought he’s one of the smartest pop songwriters around, and also among the most under-appreciated.  Though his first two albums for MCA Records, Human Racing and The Riddle (both released back-to-back in 1984), tend to get the most attention, I was more drawn to his two albums on MCA that followed:  1986’s phenomenal Radio Musicola and 1989’s unfairly maligned The Works.  Because of his quick output within this five-year span of time, Kershaw was unfortunately relegated to ’80s U.K. synthpop whiz-kid status and never fully shed that label.  I still feel that many of the songs he wrote and recorded in those days are pure pop genius, with an ear for melody and clever lyrical turns that are mostly unparalleled either then or now.

After a decade spent writing and producing songs for other artists, Nik Kershaw’s 15 Minutes was intended to be something of a comeback album.  For those who were still following his music at that point, it was certainly a comeback and much more; the album’s twelve new tracks retained all the verve and promise of Kershaw’s earlier pop records, but in a refined and maturely realized musical style.  Moreover, with its obvious reference to the infamous quotation by Andy Warhol, 15 Minutes offers a sharp analysis of the notion of celebrity itself, examining what exactly it means to be any sort of popular artist, and the price one pays, potentially, for inhabiting that kind of public persona and perpetuating our cultural obsession with fame.

The album’s contemplative yet upbeat opening number, “Somebody Loves You,” playfully explores how a performer interacts with his audience over time:  “I put my words upon their lips / I put my body at their fingertips / And it feels like somebody loves you / Somebody understands.”  Kershaw is clearly aware, of course, that an adoring listenership isn’t actually love at all, even when it feels like it is, but he also knows there’s a kind of mutual dependency that isn’t always such a bad thing either (“They know my face, and they know my name / They know my shamelessness but not my shame… / I need them much more than they need me”).  The song’s cheerful delivery and catchy guitar hooks belie its tongue-in-cheek interrogations of narcissism as Kershaw asks, “Who’s gonna love me when they’ve gone? / What will I do without my wishing well? / What will I say if I can’t talk about myself?”

A later song on the album, “Shine On,” asks similar questions in an equally intelligent fashion; its thoughtful approach and shimmering, percussive instrumentation captivated me from my very first listen.  The lyrics reflect earnestly and literally on the earlier period of Kershaw’s own solo pop career with a unique brand of introspection, addressing his younger self directly through a series of carefully arranged images and memories:

“I took a hundred and ten pictures of you
I put them all around me and wondered what to do
Like a temple in memory, a shrine in your name
To days I can’t remember, to nights I can’t reclaim
I took a part of my life about 18 years long
I pulled it all to pieces and tried to make a song
With a groove you could dance to, a tune you could hum
I sang to my reflection, looking for the one.”

“Somebody Loves You” and “Shine On” both fit well with the album’s larger theme, which isn’t so much a midlife crisis as a bold midlife reassessment.  Kershaw seems to wonder what his former successes as a pop artist meant, as well as where exactly they went, but he doesn’t stop there, situating those ideas amongst the more personal aspects of his life.  The rapid-fire and outright comical “Billy” ponders how men operate once settled into their married years (“He’s got one face he keeps for his woman / And one for when he’s out with the guys… / He reads Marie Claire at the doctor’s / Just in case there is something he should know”).  “Have a Nice Life” is a simple yet moving meditation from a father to his son, just as the son is preparing to make his own way out into the world.

Appropriately appearing halfway through the album, “What Do You Think of It So Far?” is another self-addressed inquiry about making changes midstream:  “You’ve had it all and you’ve wanted more / You’ve had nothing and you’ve wanted for nothing… / Do you wonder if there might be something better?”  On the more somber “Fiction,” Kershaw looks back over his past once again and finds it all quite surreal and difficult to believe.

Naturally, the album culminates in its closing title track, a spirited and rollicking countdown (“One-quarter hour to get it all together / Nine-hundred seconds to make your bed / 15 minutes to show the world… / Throw me money, I’ll live forever”).  The song swirls into a chorus of guitars, chanting, and applause until it’s abruptly shut down by an old-style alarm clock ticking and finally buzzing the listener awake.  On the album’s U.S. release, however, the alarm clock segues into a beautifully arranged acoustic version of Kershaw’s biggest hit, “Wouldn’t It Be Good,” the song that continues to extend Kershaw’s 15 minutes of fame over thirty years later.