Sunday, 15 June 2014

Siouxsie Sunday: 'Mantaray' by Siouxsie

(Alright, I know I promised to write this two weeks ago but things happen. Anyhow, here it is now - let's get on with it!)

2007 marked an unusual year for Siouxsie Sioux - for the first time during her nearly 30-year career, she was going solo. The album, titled Mantaray, wasn't actually the first project she had done under solo moniker, though: three years prior, she had embarked on the Dreamshow tour (with her then-partner and one half of The Creatures, Budgie) where she performed songs from both of the bands she had fronted, The Creatures and The Banshees. A DVD of the show was released afterwards, topping the UK music DVD charts upon its release. The duo of Siouxsie and Budgie also included several songs from their previous (and unfortunately, last) Creatures studio album Hái! (accompanied by Leonard Eto, who played on the album) and billing the tour as a Siouxsie tour was most likely merely a way to incorporate Banshees songs into the setlist.

This time, however, she's really going solo, as in 2007 she announced that she and Budgie had divorced. The subsequent absence of Budgie on the record is a major change - this was the first Siouxsie album since 1979's Join Hands that doesn't feature his work. Siouxsie had previously done amazing records in both of her groups with thriving artistic chemistry, so how does she fare solo?

From the opening bars of "Into A Swan", it's obvious that she's not playing around. The song, also released as the lead single off the LP, is an almost industrial rock number that addresses a mental transformation, a 'statement of intent': "I'm on the verge of an awakening / A new kind of strength for me". The chorus underlines the message, turning the song into a fierce empowerment anthem: "I feel a force I never felt before / I don't wanna fight it anymore / Feelings so strong, can't be ignored / I burst out, I'm transformed", while also declaring that she's fully in charge of herself: "Don't be surprised / This change is my design". This particular lyric mirrors another avian song of hers, namely "Painted Bird" (from 1982's A Kiss In The Dreamhouse) and the line "Because we're painted birds by our own design". However, whereas in "Painted Bird" the birds that (have been painted with bright colours and therefore) don't blend into the flock end up being pecked to death by their peers, in "Into A Swan" this uncompromisingness is seen as a strengthening factor - only by manifesting your true self can you truly reach your potential. And by the time she's chanting "I burst out into a swan!", you'd better believe her. 

Rather than referring to H.C. Andersen's iconic "Ugly Duckling", this swan transformation refers to Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake"; another, quite a bit darker tale with swans. This reference is further emphasised in the music video:

(Doesn't she just look fierce in that clip?)

The transformation is obviously a metaphor for her regaining her independence and spreading her wings on her own for the first time in decades (both personally and professionally), following her divorce. Several songs on Mantaray seem to be tackling this radical change in her life, such as "Loveless" or the more ballad-y "If It Doesn't Kill You" and "Heaven And Alchemy". "Into A Swan" and "Loveless" were actually the first songs written for the album - except they weren't meant to be recorded by her. Originally, she had the intention of pursuing a career as a songwriter for other artists:
"I thought they would be perfect for a band like Sugababes. I liked the idea of being a writer and letting somebody else do the graft. And then I wrote Loveless and I wanted it. Still, I sent it to the label, and they preferred my demos to the girl group version."
Well, thank goodness they did - otherwise a Siouxsie album could have possibly never happened. This time emulating a more feline character ("Like a panther on the prowl / Hear me purr, hear me growl"), in "Loveless" she states to have learnt from her past experiences, now standing stronger as herself: "I know what's good for me / I know what's bad for me / All that sweetness / Covered falseness", with the frank lyrics set to a cello-accompanied backdrop that could be a distant cousin to the 1981 Banshee classic "Night Shift".

To call the album a 'divorce album' would still be hasty, as there's plenty of other stuff going on as well. The upbeat glam-rocker "About To Happen" - that wouldn't sound out of a place on a Franz Ferdinand record and brings to mind the 2005 hit "I Like The Way You Move" by BodyRockers - is a more positive track and describes a sudden surge of energy where "Tension mounts, about to blow / Tension builds - crescendo! / I can't contain it, I'm fit to burst / All supernova in a big bang fist". While some of the lyrics aren't quite on a par with the rest of Siouxsie's oeuvre (the slight awkwardness of her urging people to "Get up - get out, don't hang about!" is comparable to that of "Got To Get Up", a  thematically very similar track from 1991's Superstition) it is otherwise an entertaining take on mid-noughties electronic dance-rock, and it's fun to hear Siouxsie loosening up every once in a while.

One of the most outstanding moments of the album is another Mantaray-single, the fabulous cabaret-strutter that is "Here Comes That Day". The Shirley Bassey-esque jazz noir is rich with brass hooks and attitude, and delivers menacing messages of the risks of a shallow life: "Oh, here comes that day / Oh, here comes that rain on your parade / There's a price to pay / for a life of insincerity". Hell, it would even make a mesmerising Bond tune! It's a travesty that no actual music video was filmed - it would've made a killer single with proper promotion. It actually entered the UK singles chart at #93 due to its popularity prior to its single release but failed to reach any higher with its official single. Such a shame.

And speaking of songs that could pass for a Bond theme song, there's "If It Doesn't Kill You". A surprisingly tender and candid song, it has Siouxsie take on the role of a torch singer and wistfully sing about facing hardships in your life ("If it doesn't kill you / it will shape you / If it doesn't break you / it will make you") before finally offering her comfort ("Don't be afraid / Don't shed a tear / I'm here") in the gorgeously soaring bridge, one of Mantaray's definite highlights.

Interestingly enough for a Siouxsie album, most of its best moments are indeed on the more mellow tracks, like the closing trio of "Sea of Tranquility", "They Follow You", and "Heaven And Alchemy". "Sea of Tranquility" actually dates back years, when its lyrics were released in a Gifthorse fanzine in 2001. Rumour has it that The Creatures were set to release an electronic scifi/future-inspired record after 1999's Anima Animus, which would've featured two Gifthorse-exclusive CD singles of the same year ("Rocket Ship" and "Red Wrapping Paper"). These plans were however cancelled by the Banshees' brief reunion tour the following year, and thereafter they went on to record the Hái! album, and the lyric was apparently left unused.

Re-surfacing in 2007, this surreal murder mystery has now received a melody and a chamber-pop-meets-bossa-nova backdrop, and showcases a new side of her that's perhaps more 'adult' than anything that before. The instrumentals are sublime and Siouxsie's voice shows that though it might have suffered in range due aging, it has also developed deepness and richness not at all unlike a fine wine. It is stunning, and the top-notch lyrics paint vivid images in a trademark Siouxsie way.

"They Follow You" is a pleasant-sounding, yet bittersweet portrayal on the lingering effects of past trauma "Wounds heal in time, scars leave their signs / Sewn up inside, sewn up in mind / They follow you" and people's chemical tries to survive through that: "Swallowing pills, intoning spells / All potions spill down the wishing well". Once again, great lyricism and wonderful instrumentals that go along with the fairy tale imagery. The album closer "Heaven And Alchemy" in turn could well be the most surprising listen out of the bunch - it's a good ol' piano ballad that sees Siouxsie more vulnerable than ever before, with her speaking about life exceptionally openly without the elaborate disguises of her usually cryptic lyrics. "I'm in love with the idea of you / In rush reality / Hard to face this deception / This human frailty" she sings while crystallising the feelings of anyone who has ever gone through a heartbreak. And when she heartrendingly croons "I would catch a falling star if you asked me to / but I can't seem to find one to hold on to", you'll be left amazed of how far the glacial Ice Queen has come from her early punk days. In the best of ways.

The album is actually quite hard to classify. There's pop, there's rock. There's jazz, and then there's torch songs. The percussion-driven "One Mile Below" and the kooky, jazz-tinged "Drone Zone" are almost Creatures-y in sound, and both sound like they could almost be lost tracks from the Boomerang sessions. However, while good songs as such, they're not quite as good as the rest of the material. Now, if only "One Mile Below" would be just a little bit more thunderous and tribal, and "Drone Zone" even more hypnotic in its eccentricity. While the former could also do with some more complex lyrics, "Drone Zone" is actually a fascinating lyric, continuing with her recurrent theme of the claustrophobia of the routine-controlled middle class suburban life, comparing it to a life of a busy bee: "Far down below, row after row / Insect life in a healthy cancer glow / Manicured lawns stretch to a yawn / Hum, drum, drone zone". There's something very (deliciously) creepy to this image.

Mantaray clearly meant a huge change for Siouxsie, and many were highly curious of how her solo debut would sound like. Is it a total metamorphosis? That's hard to say. There are some nods to the past, intentional or not - the cold electronic harshness of "Into A Swan" recalls that of Anima Animus, "They Follow You" is a reminiscent of Peepshow with its fairytale-ness and accordion-accompanied soundscape, while "About To Happen" resembles some moments on Superstition where the band tried to emulate current trends rather than creating their own ones - but with a back catalogue as extensive as Siouxsie's, that is rather inevitable. And most importantly, there's many new elements, too. Modernity and timelessness blend together harmoniously on this album, and the beautiful contemporary cabaret-pop of tracks like "If It Doesn't Kill You" do on the other hand represent a reinvented Siouxsie sound. 

(Speculation time: will that sound be returned to in the future as well? The Angelo Badalamenti collaboration "Careless Love" she recorded for the film The Edge of Love would seem to hint at this direction, but only time will tell. She has been reportedly working on new material, although in the most recent interview from last autumn she was rather evasive about it. Also, when she performed at the sold-out Meltdown gigs one year ago, no new material surfaced. Siouxsie, you sure do keep us waiting for news.)

Siouxsie has always had the habit of shedding her skin and emerging with something new and unexpected on an albumly basis, and that is also the case with this LP. And what a beautiful album this is, full of life with a wide range of emotions. Her usual gloominess has grown more pensive and wistful in here, as heard on "Heaven And Alchemy", though she still packs a kick as well - see the singles for reference. Thus, the album's not the Ice Queen engaging in nostalgia, but rather just showing a more 'grown-up' side of her, through which we are guided by her irresistible and distinctive smokey voice.

When an artist is in the business for as long as she has been, every new album will be met with a lot of expectations, but personally I rank Mantaray as one of her best ones. It succeeds in sounding like a very natural evolution from her past albums, but still presents us with a brand new mixture of sound, decidedly different from anything she's ever done before. Classical, timeless, and accessible, it is her most mature and sincere record to date.

4½ / 5

Try at least: "Into A Swan", "Here Comes That Day", "If It Doesn't Kill You", "They Follow You"

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