Friday, February 14, 2014

A Mixtape for Valentine’s Day 2007

Originating from various Greek and Roman fertility festivals held between mid-January and mid-February, and subsequently codified as the feast day of the early Christian martyr St. Valentine, Valentine’s Day has metamorphosed (or some would say degenerated) today into a mass consumerist-endorsed orgy of grossly overpriced rose bouquets and ridiculously elaborate candlelit dinners. 

Let’s face it, present-day February 14 has become a day that attests much more to the triumphs of rampant, overloaded capitalism than any original notions of simple affection. 

One of the more grating aspects of this day of capitalism-sanctioned indulgences of Belgian chocolates and red roses is the propensity of giant record conglomerates to churn out numerous multiple-disc compilations. These various-artists collection invariably contains the usual predictable pop drivel from the likes of cringe-inducing, Lite FM-approved acts such as Lionel Richie, Diana Ross, Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey, or for the younger set, the wimpy, wussy James Blunt, the sickeningly slick opera boy band Il Divo or any randomly chosen, overproduced, over-rated American Idol alumnus. 

However, thankfully there are some credible acts, past and present, who have refused to bow down to the powers-that-be, instead producing top-notch songs that deftly bypass the customary clichés, and restore the necessary power and passion to the much-abused concept of the classic love song. 

So, in conjunction with Valentine’s Day 2007, here are 11 convincing examples of how a true love song should be, all adding up to a quality Valentine’s Day mixtape:

MESSAGE TO MY GIRL - Split Enz (Conflicting Emotions, 1983) 
A clear-cut, heartfelt ditty that is a real departure from Split Enz’s previous musical eccentricities, Message to My Girl is as close to a straight love song as the skewed Kiwi new-wave geniuses have ever done. Adorned with sparkling New Romantic-styled synth tinklings and a sincere Neil Finn vocal, it’s no wonder why this achingly pretty ode to a new love, which has lost none of its blissful lustre after 24 years, remains a live mainstay during Finn’s Crowded House, Finn Brothers and solo days.

JUST LIKE HEAVEN - The Cure (Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, 1987)
Goth-rock icons The Cure put out their most accessible (and commercially successful) record with 1987’s Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, and this magnificent, sky-scraping track is a specific highlight from that wondrous double-album. Anchored by a steady backbeat, a masterful guitar filigree and stately synth chords, Just Like Heaven was the band’s first real breakthrough in the impossibly insular American market, and a bona fide Cure classic that has popped up in myriad movie soundtracks since its initial release. 

BIZARRE LOVE TRIANGLE - New Order (Brotherhood, 1986) 
A rare love song from legendary post-punk pioneers New Order, Bizarre Love Triangle constitutes the most accessible moment from an otherwise difficult fourth album. A stellar example of the band’s then-newfound synth-pop direction, the track’s jaunty, streamlined backbeat and radio-friendly melody was highly at odds with its doubt-ridden, romantically ambiguous lyrical content. Nevertheless, it still managed to successfully penetrate the US dance charts, coming in at a respectable No 4. 

THE KILLING MOON - Echo and the Bunnymen (Ocean Rain, 1984) 
Echo and the Bunnymen’s most dramatic instance comes in the form of this intensely cinematic musical epic, the indisputable highlight of 1984’s Ocean Rain. Replete with detailed nocturnal imagery, supported by a theatrical string section, and fronted with a confident vocal from loudmouth Echo frontman Ian McCulloch, the desolate, windswept The Killing Moon is an atmospheric study in minor-key romantic melancholy, and used to superb effect on the soundtrack of the existentialist flick Donnie Darko. 

SOMETIMES ALWAYS - The Jesus and Mary Chain (Stoned and Dethroned, 1994) This often overlooked JAMC gem brilliantly creates a sense of drugged-out forgiveness between estranged lovers, brilliantly conveyed through the lethargic-sounding duet between William Reid and guest Hope Sandoval from Mazzy Star. An agreeable recreation of the psych-folk proclivities of Paisley Underground luminaries like American Music Club and Cowboy Junkies, Sometimes Always is certainly a welcome change from the usual shoegazer-feedback aesthetics of the Reid brothers. 

VIA CHICAGO - Wilco (Summerteeth, 1999) 
Any love song that begins with the line “I dreamt of killing you last night, and it felt all right with me” has to be slightly unorthodox, to say the least. Extracted from 1999’s otherwise sunny Britpop-informed masterwork Summerteeth, the worn-out, country-folkish Via Chicago is one of that album’s mellower moments, but it still manages to draw out an exceptional, confessional vocal from Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. 

EXIT MUSIC (FOR A FILM) - Radiohead (OK Computer, 1997) 
A darkly romantic number from 1997’s magnum opus OK Computer that played over the closing credits of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, this spooky, disconsolate crawl in the darkness tells a classic forced-separation tale through an apt musical melange of nervously strummed acoustic guitars, panicky fuzz-bass textures and a tense, clenched-teeth vocal from Thom Yorke. Arguably the most affecting tune in Radiohead’s vast repertoire. 

STAND INSIDE YOUR LOVE - The Smashing Pumpkins (Machina/The Machines of God, 2000) 
This self-assured, mid-tempo charge that sings unabashedly of the glories of love is from the Pumpkins’ ostensible final album, 2000’s Machina/The Machines of God. Here, the band boldly relive the glory days of 1993’s Siamese Dream, purveying the same sort of gleaming Technicolor guitar layers and carefully crafted white-noise sculptures. The whole thing is held together by an upfront but measured lead vocal from Billy Corgan, thankfully minus his usual voice histrionics.  

THERE IS A LIGHT NEVER GOES OUT - The Smiths (The Queen Is Dead, 1986) 
Some quarters might view Morrissey as a conceited, arrogant, self-promoting member of the musical intelligentsia, but there is no denying the empathic witticism that’s a distinguishing feature of his songwriting. A strong case in point comes in the form of this classic Smiths song, a virtuosic, gloriously miserable jewel from 1986’s The Queen Is Dead. Bolstered by a sympathetic string orchestration and a recurring, jangly guitar hook from Johnny Marr, lines like “I never, never want to go home, because I haven’t got one anymore” and “And if a ten-ton truck crashes into us, to die by your side, is such a heavenly way to die” takes on vibrant life. 

INTO MY ARMS - Nick Cave (The Boatman’s Call, 1997) 
An atypical instance that catches usually-fiery Goth Godfather Nick Cave in rare reflective mood, Into My Arms is a subdued, elegant piano ballad that has a startling positivity at its lyrical core. The song’s questioning, hesitantly hopeful tone is effectively expressed through a quietly confident vocal and a series of rolling, melodic piano chords that managed to keep it on track, without any lapses into mawkishness. 

LOVE IS BLINDNESS - U2 (Achtung Baby, 1991) 
A mournful, ominous lamentation that effectively acts as the ultimate anti-romantic love song, this closing number from 1991’s genre-defying Achtung Baby is painfully, brutally stark in its evocation of spurned love (“Love is blindness, I don’t want to see, won’t you wrap the night around me?”), and its intensely imagistic, feverish lyrics (“Love is clockworks, and cold steel, fingers too numb to feel”). The Edge’s cathartic guitar solo here is arguably the most emotionally upheaving performance of his entire career. 

VALENTINE’S DAY - Bruce Springsteen (Tunnel of Love, 1987) 
A dark theme for this lover's day of days, this highly ominous closer to Springsteen's decidedly personal-themed 1987 album Tunnel of Love is a far cry from the rabble-rousing stadium anthems that the Boss is usually known for. Couched in a dread-filled, solemn instrumental sheet of spare keyboard chords and moody acoustic guitars, and held together by Springsteen's uncertain baritone, Valentine's Day easily bucks the trend set by your usual commercial-radio Valentine's Day fodder. Portentous lines like "They say if you die in your dreams, you really die in your bed", "It wasn't the cold river bottom I felt rushing over me, it wasn't the wind in the grey fields I felt rushing through my arms" and "Tell me you'll be my lonely Valentine" suggest that the protagonist's loved one has departed for good, and perhaps even gone from this mortal coil.