Monday, 14 January 2008

ELECTRONIC: Forbidden City


There has rarely been a more assertive start to any Joy Division or New Order record than the "There's not a hope" with which Bernard Sumner commences "Forbidden City." In light of their increasingly rock(ist) exploits as the nineties wore on the consensus on Electronic is currently undecided, although both Sumner and Marr have treated it exactly how it was intended; as light (or heavy) relief from their primary day jobs. Admittedly I do miss Neil Tennant's regular input in their early days; "Getting Away With It" would have been the perfect 1989 Christmas number one since it effortlessly sums up much of what was indispensable from its parent decade with the input of three of its most crucial musicians (five if you count the two Lexicon Of Love refugees, drummer David Palmer and arranger Anne Dudley; the latter's closing string coda smartly bookends Lexicon's prelude).

Nevertheless, post-1992 Electronic does have its merits, and "Forbidden City" is pre-eminent amongst that list; it sounds like their most hopeful song yet harbours one of their least hopeful lyrics. Certainly Sumner's voice has scarcely sounded more actively enraged; the song concerns itself with a particularly messy break-up, and not necessarily one involving romantic partners, snipes being fired bilaterally ("I wish I'd been around when you started this," "You're in a trance/And I'm not so fond of you"). The song eventually arrives at a resigned conclusion: "And it's too late to wash my hands/We're caught in a trap set for a man."

Marr's guitar lines are bold and blue though dip for the ineffable melancholy of the B flat-C-D "chorus" - and the anticipated sadness is cleverly built up by withholding the chorus until after the second verse; the first leads you to the edge before bouncing back with deliberate frustration into the second, delaying its release. Then Marr's guitar peals out fortissimo McGuinn lead notes for the third verse ("There is a wind that blows in the Northern sky") though again Sumner defers any implication of joy by a barely suppressed feeling of resentment at Manchester, or Tony Wilson, or other such adored points of reference: "If I had the sense/I'd leave here tomorrow"). With every chorus the bass (also played by Marr) arches up an ominous octave and back under "caught in a trap." Then the intensity becomes even harder to touch without burning; Marr's guitar break is more of an elongated feedback howl than a solo. Thereafter Sumner returns to double the anticipatory pace of the song ("Would you lie to me?"); again there is a misleading build-up before he repeats the sequence and then sinking back into elegant despair with the final round of choruses. Behind him Marr's guitars subtly but naturally expand and sigh into full post-Cocteaus lamenting and provide a natural and logical (and restrained) beauty to Sumner's grief (echoed by his own, slightly bitonal responses of "Would you lie to me?"); the elegance quietly bolstered by Karl Bartos' slowly modulating synths, the suppressed brutality underlined by the final and (again) delayed drum sign-off from Black Grape's Jed Lynch. Structurally a perfectly imperfect pop/rock song, its patient build-up was largely lost on all bar the loyal, and it stopped at number 14 on our 1996 charts, but it remains one of Sumner and Marr's most secret triumphs.