Album: Pop Full Stop
Statuesque is the name under which Stephen Manning has played (all but the drums) and recorded his intensely literate, feyly melodic Brit-pop songs since the late 1990s. Their older albums — peaking for me with 2004’s superb Choir Above, Fire Below — often gave a striking imitation of full-band performance and professional production. I imagine that’s expensive and time-consuming for a hobby, though, so by 2013’s Pop Full Stop he’s settled into releasing large gobs of songs (25 on Pop Full Stop itself, plus he released two other albums that year) that sound much more like one guy plus a part-time drummer. It’s completely understandable but disappointing. Not because the resulting album isn’t a pleasure; it is one, hummable and lonely/ funny and playing with complicated rhymes and over-extended metaphors (about which more in the third paragraph). It’s disappointing only because it’s the outlines of a masterpiece that no one had time to fill in.
Some of the arrangements are winners, mind you. Out Crowd stomps along on big fuzzy bass riffs and echoing, syncopated drums, with pinging guitar decorations near the top of the treble range. Jigsaw Island hides a Proclaimers-like jangle behind Smiths-style dreaminess and another big fuzzy riff, this one sinister. Over Being Over You gets mileage from clip-clop drums, agile leaps of guitar melody, wordless harmony vocals, and the extreme intensity of Manning’s yelp; Augmental from creepy chord changes strummed out with Ani DiFranco-like disregard for the health of the skin on his fingers, plus woozily psychedelic production drones on the chorus guitar and vocals. Micronationals rings out like mid-’80s R.E.M. God, Alcohol, and the Moon and My Life is One Long Cartwheel are loud and bleary yet pleasantly twee, sounding like a Sarah Records band, or Guided By Voices. But the majority of songs here are just voice-and-simple-guitar or voice-and-ukelele, simple-or-no drums — which, while fine, puts all the pressure on words and melodies. At which point one can start to notice that as strong and distinctive as Statuesque‘s melodies are, they re-use some of their most interesting, sidewise progressions from song to song.
Luckily, the English language (and his voice is *very* English, of some modest-income regional variant from the island’s south) has more words than the music alphabet has notes, so the words provide novelty where needed. Pop Full Stop is rooted in defeat and fatalism, but cleverly so, set in a world of “Limits set down early/ Playground conquistador/ Whose dad will vanquish yours./ Don’t judge him too sternly: /He lacks the Myers-Briggs/ To find the Boson Higgs”. “Some are born fighting/ others, alighting, apologize their way into the world”, he sings elsewhere, and we know he’s the latter. Many pop songs seek romance; few of them admit what a much larger number think, phrased here by Manning as “I want a girl with a flipchart heart/ who’ll declare my moods are a work of art/ who’ll delete my history as each day starts”. Micronationals isn’t the first love song to propose a You-and-Me-Against-the-World arrangement, but there’s a clarity to “Give away your dignity/ and celebrate what’s left with me/ we’ll be like micronationals/ pinning medals on passing gulls”.
It’s probably too stark to be a winning message; I’ve rated Pop Full Stop slightly ahead of Yeezus in my countdown of 2013, but it’s hardly a surprise when the groupies vote against me. A few times Manning’s romantic frustration lashes out (albeit cleverly: I’d rather be attacked by him than Phil Collins, if forced to either fate), but mostly he keeps his lashes inward. Given that rock criticism is predominantly male, it is a little bit off that Statuesque has no standing with the critics’ polls. Kanye West lashes out too, far more than Stephen Manning does, and as unproductive as both of their complaints may be, Stephen’s are, for most of us, a better fit to our style and our memories of youth. It’s possible he should focus, as Dr. Nerdlove would suggest, on better dress and posture and a warmer conversational style more full of active listening and well-timed touching; but look, while he wasn’t doing that, he recorded 25 new songs. I don’t live in London; his actual choice, then, was far more useful to me.
– Brian Block
The Amazon link is for my favorite Statuesque album. Pop Full Stop is my 2nd-favorite Statuesque album and is available for £5 from their bandcamp page.