ADRIAN BELEW, POP-Sided (Independent, 2019)
All instruments and voices by Adrian Belew
- when is it coming back
- the times we live in
- everybody’s sitting
- lobsters and hypocrites
- take five deep breaths
- the ladder of life
- road rage
- wait to worry
Adrian Belew is best known as the highly experimental, tech-oriented, high-wire walking progressive rock guitarist who brought thrills and excitement to the music of King Crimson, Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Talking Heads, Nine Inch Nails, and countless others. But Belew also possesses a keen knack for melody and harmony, heavily influenced by the Beatles and other acts from that era. This side of his personality is expressed best in the context of The Bears and his solo albums.
Belew’s last three solo albums have been a part of his experimental Flux series, where listeners are asked to use the “shuffle” button on their CD players to combine songs with various forms of ambient noise, creating a unique listening experience with each play. With POP-Sided, he returns to conventional form, creating an eclectic but accessible front-to-back musical immersion.
The album clocks in at a scant 31 minutes, a la his side one, side two, and side three releases from a decade-plus ago. Belew is well aware of the relatively short attention span of the modern music listener, who mostly chooses to download select tracks over entire albums. A shorter album lends itself to more focused listening, he reasons. But this shouldn’t be seen as a disincentive. Quite the contrary. POP-Sided is LOADED with enough musical information to keep the listener under the impression that the album lasted longer. Most of the lyrics come across as contemplative and autobiographical, as Belew ponders the state of the world and his place in it.
Things get off to a wistful beginning with “when is it coming back,” a breezy bit of ’60s pop created, it seems, just for a leisurely day on the beach. Anyone looking for Belew’s more experimental side doesn’t have to wait long, as “obsession” steamrolls over the opener with a heavy 6/8 stomp and shrieking guitars, not unlike “madness” from side one. The lyrics amount to a simple question, “when is enough enough?” which is a point driven home beautifully by the instruments at hand.
“times we live in” could have been credited to Lennon/McCartney/Belew, as the music reminds one of “Rocky Racoon” from The Beatles (aka The White Album). But the lyrics are pure Adrian, as he contemplates the loss of civility in society, and how he has come to feel horribly out of place because he insists on maintaining his. More than a few of us can relate. The theme is similar in “everybody’s sitting,” where Belew ponders the relative absence of engagement by people in modern society. What might seem like so much grumpiness is really a case of genuine concern.
Belew is at his most abstract on “lobsters and hypocrites,” a tune best heard in order to be understood. It harkens back to the likes of King Crimson’s “Neurotica.” Meanwhile, “although” is the most genuine case of Belew being Belew, an epic pop song that would have fit just as nicely on his Here album as it does on this record. “take five deep breaths” comes across as a useful mantra, while “ladder of life” offers an interesting perspective on Belew’s feelings toward his professional life. “road rage” finds a kind man dealing with the rancor surrounding him, and “wait to worry” offers up reasons not to get hung up on any of it.
Belew performed only two of his brand new songs with his new quartet (more on that soon) in concert. This seems surprising at first, but POP-sided is a deeply intimate and personal album, performed in the studio by Belew alone. In the end, he may feel it is best presented that way, offering an even deeper connection between artist and listener. Mission accomplished.
Currently, the album is available exclusively at Belew’s concerts. I suspect this will change once he comes off the road. Keep an eye on his Facebook page for further information. And when the opportunity presents itself, make POP-sided part of your collection.
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