Friday 4 July 2008

Review 79) Gilbert O'Sullivan "Off Centre" (1980)

On which Gilbert digs deep for some revealing insights into a difficult time in his life – without losing his rather off-centre sense of humour…

Track Listing: I Love It, But/What’s In A Kiss?/ Hello, It’s Goodbye/ Why Pretend?/ I’m Not Getting Any Younger/ Things That Go Bump In The Night// Help Is On The Way/For What It’s Worth/ The Niceness Of It All/ Can’t Get Enough Of You/ Break It To Me Gently/ Or So They Say (UK and US tracklisting). 



For The Record:

Ones to watch out for: I Love It But, What’s In A Kiss?, I’m Not Getting Any Younger, Help Is On The Way

Ones to skip: Hello, Its Goodbye is a bit obvious and Or So They Say is a bit weird.

The cover: A rather poor drawing of an off-centre piano (get it?!). Gilbert’s other sleeves from the period are much more interesting.

Key lyrics: “I think its great—but it could be greater, perhaps if you were to change the melody, or try a different key? I love it I love it I love it, but it doesn’t knock me out!” “This is the story of my life, every chance I get to try, before you know it – hello, it’s goodbye” “Unless I am by nature a freak, there’s no denying those passing signs that I’m not getting any younger, God knows it wasn’t my idea” “You try to live life tied to a chair, trying to hide your loneliness” “Every time I see a shadow I think what a blessing it must be, not to have to claw with fingers, not to have to look with nothing to see” “I’m suffering from the world’s first lovely disease, I just can’t get enough of you” “Did Jamaica? No, she came by her own accord”

Original UK chart position: This was the third successive Gilbert album that DNC – the last new album of material to chart was as long ago as 1974’s A Stranger In My Own Back Yard.

Singles: What’s In A Kiss? was a last gasp single from a steadily dying commercial career, making #19 the month before this album’s release and becoming the first charting single for Gilbert in five years – a lifetime in the late 1970s/early 1980s. It’s still his last top 20 hit to date.

Official out-takes: No tracks from these sessions have appeared on any compilations as far as I’m aware – send us an email if you know of some! STOP PRESS: Apparently Gilbert has a CD out called Rare Tracks and apparently one of those tracks is I Can’t Get Enough Of You. However, this compilation is currently rarer than an intelligent  Spice Girls song and ridiculously hard to find so I can’t tell you if its an alternate take, a demo, a live version or exactly the same as the recording here.

Availability: Another rarity, I’m afraid, with the only CD issue long since deleted, although you still stand a good chance of finding it in some format from second-hand shops or even charity shops if you keep your eyes peeled (that’s where I got mine, cheers Market Drayton!) STOP PRESS: It looks as if there is a CD release – but I’ve only ever seen it listed via Gilbert’s official website. Get googling for it now if you haven’t heard it yet!

This album came between: The rare Southpaw (1977) and ultra-rare Life and Rhymes (1982) produced by list favourite 10cc’s Graham Gouldman incidentally, both of which are so hard to come across I’m still trying to track them down. I wouldn’t be the monkeynuts collector I claim to be if I didn’t do my best to point the Sullivan novice in some sort of direction, however, so here goes. The records of Gilbert’s that you see around are nearly always one of his first four albums, of which the last two are generally the best. I’m A Writer Not A Fighter (1973) features some of Gilbert’s sweetest and catchiest recordings while A Stranger In My Own Backyard (1974) shows an extremely promising development in arranging and production, highlighted by the classic O’Sullivan song It’s Easy To Be Sad. As far as later LPs go, your best bet is Sounds Of The Loop (1993), which has nothing all that pioneering or ground-breaking but does have a dozen or so classic slabs of compact pop writing.

Line-up: Gilbert O’Sullivan with various unlisted musicians (produced by Gus Dudgeon)

Putting The Album In Context:

GILBERT was always a little off-centre. While his glam-rock peers were busy putting the glitter into the glitterati and the prog rockers were busy saving lives, the universe and everything, Gilbert was a one-man return to the world of classy but understated poppy singles and shamelessly catchy melodies. A decade or so writing lovely homespun melodies with cute lyrics about little girls, bigger girls and their mothers was always going to make real-name Ray o’Sullivan an ‘outsider’ in music terms and Gilbert quickly found himself dismissed by many ‘proper’ collectors in the music business as a rather shallow writer. To be fair Gilbert’s catalogue is a bit of a mixed beast. For every insightful gem like Claire and Alone Again, Naturally, singles that are full of such suspense, originality, wit and charm you want to cry, you get frivolous one-note nonsense fluff like Oo-wakka-doo-wakka-day.  Enough said. But there’s a very real heartbeat ticking away on many of Gilbert’s songs and the songs that were at least partly inspired by Gilbert’s real life and his real life problems are for me by far and away the best. As the true Gilbert collector will tell you, its not the empty-headed narrators of Ooh Baby and Get Down that makes their heart skip a beat, it’s the deserted disconsolately lonely character of So Easy To Be Sad, the unlucky put-upon character in Nothing Rhymed and the I’ll-stick-with-you-through-thick-and-thin companion of A Friend Of Mine. Gilbert did his best to hide it all, but there’s a solid honesty and emotion underlining many of his best songs in amongst all the catchy ‘story’ songs, so just imagine how thrilled I was to discover an all but forgotten album almost full of this stuff.

Off Centre is hardly a nakedly confessional singer-songwriter classic in the same sense as Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, but it is a fairly representative album about what was on Gilbert’s mind in the late 70s/ early 80s and the pressures and obstacles in his path at the time. Recorded at a time when he was suing his former manager and champion Gordon Mills for large quantities of money he was owed and control of his recordings (a court case which Gilbert won but whose complexity and bitterness meant the singer didn’t release anything between 1982 and 1987), it shows Gilbert thinking about life a bit more, his place in music and the inspirations that drove him to write in the first place. The album kicks off with one of the most postmodernist self-critical songs in anybody’s canon, never mind Gilbert’s usually poppy fare, and along the way covers themes of getting older (perhaps the biggest taboo subject still remaining in ‘pop’ music even today), no less than two songs about a recovering alcoholic trying to get his life back on track and an overall theme of being lonely in middle age.

Even Gilbert’s catchier and – dare I say it – emptier songs sound better than ever on this album. The best known track from this whole LP is What’s In A Kiss? and many of the other sweet singalong ballads on this record mirror that song closely – bright and breezy, cutely romantic without descending into the clichés of many love songs, all tied together with memorable tunes and hook-lines so obvious it’s hard to imagine that they haven’t been around for decades longer. It’s all too easy to sneer at pop songs amongst the deeper and more challenging records out there and yet there will always be a place for three minute bursts of catchy life-affirming optimism on this list, all the more if you’re reading this list in order and you’ve just been to hell and back with Pete Townshend, Paul Simon and Pink Floyd. By juggling the two strands on this album – the deeper, ‘newer’ Gilbert and the catchy effervescent performer we always knew and loved– Off Centre should by rights sound deeply off-balance or at least off-centre, with two styles that don’t quite mix. Instead, given their new context beside each other the two strands sound better than ever – the catchier songs now sound like short palette-cleaners between the heavier songs that stop the mood getting too heavy, while the more serious material sounds even deeper and darker when they come after some exquisite pop song. Caught between devilish rockers and the deep blue sea of breezy pop, Off Centre shows off all sides of Gilbert, not just the side you know from radio airplay lists or best-of CDs

Off Centre has also made it to this list ahead of Gilbert’s other records because it is such a good ‘band’ record. A lot of O’Sullivan’s albums are just Gilbert and a piano – or, more recently, Gilbert, a piano and an orchestra – and although that sort of simplicity does have something of a sweet charm about it, such arrangements have the habit of making Gilbert’s more natural sounding songs sound great and his rather clichéd songs sound terrible. Not every track on Off Centre is a classic by any means, but even the bad ones have a cracking band pulling together behind the singer and the extra musicians all bring out the subtleties in Gilbert’s songs that are too-often hidden. It’s also quite a long album for the 1970s, always the sign of a good release when an artist is so pleased with his work he can’t work out what tracks to leave out, and at 48 minutes it seems like an eternity in the pre-CD age. Whatever your feelings about this record compared to Gilbert’s other work, Off Centre certainly deserves a better fate than to be one of the pianist’s worst sellers, still lacking a proper CD release to this day after the first got rather unceremoniously booted off the shelves sometime in the early 90s.


The Music:

I Love It, But is an interesting opener, a surprisingly harsh study by Gilbert of his own writing which sums up his earlier style for many – ‘I love it, but it doesn’t knock me out’. Well, all that’s about to change with this album, starting with this very track. Instead of the usual bare-bones piano or cosy horns the backing gets decidedly rocky – a cascading flurry of electric guitar sighs its way through the song, an orchestra heave-ho behind Gilbert as if they’re playing a sea shanty and overall this song is a complete move away from Gilbert’s more basic and bare productions to something that sounds like a Hollywood epic. Offering his occasional witty repartee early on in the album, Gilbert confides in us his growing lack of confidence in music - a brave move for a performer at the best of times, but an obvious piece of self-questioning given Gilbert’s legal troubles of the time and his rapidly falling sales – telling us that his work is a ‘shade too long’ and that ‘its great, but it could be greater’. Sighing, the author agrees to change the melody in an attempt to re-connect once more with the thoughts that are really on his mind, while all the while the orchestra builds to such a crescendo of emotion its clear that what Gilbert is hearing in his head is a huge symphony rather than just a simple pop song. Rather dejectedly, the track then cuts back to Gilbert’s more simple piano chords as the author slowly plods through his ideas looking for inspiration. Anybody who doubts how much hard work really did go into these effortless sounding songs should look no further than this track. A clever, original idea, even this early into the album you sense that Gilbert’s being too hard on himself here as this song simply oozes inspiration and is all too successful at getting the composer’s feelings of frustration out in the song.

What’s In A Kiss? was the hit single from the album, a semi-successful seller that deserved to do even better, although the fact that it was a hit at all is impressive given the song’s lack of promotion and Gilbert’s muted return after five years away from the charts. It’s easy to see why this was the song that restored Gilbert (sort of) back to the top though – it’s a typically sweet and wistful ballad, one that offers plenty of lyrical pathos to go with its music on a song that sounds like a logical progression of Gilbert’s earlier hits. The lyrics, too, are among the best of his ‘romantic twit’ songs – with the quietly contented narrator trying to put his finger on just what the magic moment was that saw happiness come into his life and wondering he can never get back to that happy part of his life again. Like many of Gilbert’s better song from his mid-to-late period, What’s In A Kiss? somehow manages to find the fine line between making sugar-sweet balladry sound like the most romantic thing in the world and having so much of it that you’re half afraid your teeth will decay listening to it (just listen to the edgy harmonies on the middle eight, which suddenly gives this otherwise bright and breezy ballad back its teeth again). There’s a Spanish guitar solo thrown into the mix somewhere in contrast to Gilbert’s more usual predominantly piano-style, again emphasising just how much O’Sullivan is trying to mix the old and the new. The singalong dreaminess is typically Gilbert and the result is one of his more finished, polished songs - although at only two minutes it desperately needs another verse to make it a major classic in his canon.

Hello, Its Goodbye and Why Pretend are less successful forays into boogie-woogie simplicity which, with the exception of the occasional classic rocker like Get Down and Ooh Baby, never really suited Gilbert’s style despite dominating the sound of his earlier albums. Hello, It’s Goodbye still has its moments, though, mainly thanks to Gilbert’s ‘pally’ vocal, asking the listener to sit down at the bar and hear the story of his life. The story is, as you’ve probably guessed, ‘hello its goodbye’; the fact that the narrator can never seem to make his relationships last a significant length of time, ending with a line of desperation where the composer takes the rather more unusual song-writing trait of asking the listener out on a date! A fine lyric (with 5 or 6 rhymes for the word at the end of each line on the verses – a very hard trick to pull off to say the least) is rather let down by a crashing and repetitive melody. However, the song belatedly comes alive on the second half, courtesy of a fiery guitar solo and some fine harmonies. Even so, it might be too little too late and more a case of ‘goodbye’ than ‘hello’ when you play this album next time around, quickly skipping on to the following track.

Or not as the case may be. Why Pretend sounds like The Mothers of Invention backing Lennon with squealing saxophones in a typically we’ve-just-about-got-it-together-but-it-could-go-off-at-any-moment style (and yes these two seemingly polar opposites really did work together folks – see the ‘jam session’ half of the ex-Beatle’s Sometime In New York City album from 1973, if you can bear to). However, this track does have a swing that rescues the song partly and lets you concentrate on the melodic supremacy rather than the lyrical filler. If only this song had varied its rather boring 12-bar-blues licks and three-note horn parts it might have had more admirers – and to add to its difficulties the ‘sung’ vocal horn solo part in the middle is more than a mite embarrassing. However, like many a song on this album archive list, it is the middle eight is the song’s saving grace, with Gilbert finally injecti8ng a bit of passion into the vocal which really makes a difference - especially when this section ends with the bass zooming all the way down the scale to meet the drab verse head-first once again.

The sweet ballad I’m Not Getting Any Younger stands out a mile in this context, being one of Gilbert’s career-best songs that studies with candour one of rock’s biggest taboo subjects: aging. Despite the typical Gilbert comic twist (‘God knows it wasn’t my idea’ the singer sighs at one point), he unusually treats the subject more or less straight for once, with the narrator reflecting on how he never used to think he’d get any older and how he hates the thought of being written off just because he isn’t young anymore, not remembering where he crossed the line from being one thing to the other. Explaining, naturally, that it wasn’t his choice to get older in the first place and that he shouldn’t be pilloried for the fact by his peers who will have the same problems themselves in a few years, Gilbert’s vocal offers a curious mix of resentment, anger and self-effacing comedy. The opening verse makes it clears that the narrator’s age has only just occurred to him now he has met a possible new love in his life, after years of being wrapped up in himself and long after a previous relationship that aged and faded away like he is now. Wishing the pair had met when he was younger, this song has an added twist when Gilbert reveals that the object of his affections is much younger than he is – a theme that crops up many, many times in his work from here-on in, most obviously on Not That It Bothers Me (The Sound Of The Loop, 1993). Here, though, Gilbert isn’t angrily attacking people for criticising the pairing when it’s none of their business or mutely protesting that things will work out for their best because the relationship is meant to be, as he does later – he is only concerned about how he looks through his partner’s eyes and age is only a problem for the narrator if it is for his partner. Listen out too for a typically thrown-away O’Sullivan line that’s actually the gist of the whole song – ‘ever since I’ve known you we’ve been together’ Gilbert sings, giving us this song’s theme of the couples being helpless at who they choose to fall in love and unable to change their destiny with from the first. Some of the other lines are also Gilbert at his funniest, with the narrator worrying about wrinkles and age lines every bit as much as he worries about his younger partner leaving because of his looks (and, movingly, because ‘you have your whole life ahead’ and he wants to be sure their feelings are mutual). A sweet piano lick is joined by a sympathetic string arrangement and a bit of a music-hall moment going into the chorus, the perfect backing for a sensitive song that sounds like the real Gilbert opening up for once. A song to treasure.

Things That Go Bump In The Night is another of Gilbert’s better songs and certainly among his most dramatic, with a tightly controlled tension that points ahead to many pop songs released in the 80s (Michael Jackson’s Thriller in particular two years down the line from here) and a very powerful string and sax arrangement. There’s a great guitar solo just before the fadeout and a peculiar false ending too, as if the song is wandering nervously down a darkened corner and keeps having to stop whenever it sees an unknown shadow lurking ahead of this song’s carefully controlled plodding pace. As for the lyrics, a rather unfortunate and uncharacteristically racist slur about African-Americans turning white aside, these are pretty good too, speculating on all the dangers lurking out to get you in life and hinting that at any unsuspecting moment there might be a grim reaper lurking in the shadows after you. Thanks for that, Gilbert, I’ll never get to sleep now! Interestingly, this track is the thematic opposite of the last track – here it doesn’t matter how young and unsuspecting you are, you are never safe from trouble, whereas previously the message was ‘just because old that doesn’t mean I have to stop feeling like a youngster’. The middle eight takes a different tack, however, cutting through the verses’ brooding atmospherics with a sudden rush of adrenalin which finds Gilbert adding ‘what a load of rubbish that is, I don’t know why I ever bothered with…’, cutting himself off as some other nasty thought occurs to him. Cleverly plotted and immaculately performed, this is another high point on the album (** see note).

Help Is On The Way starts side two off with a bang, being one of Gilbert’s better rockers. It’s certainly a bit more complex than his usual attempts at this style, with a ‘nattering’ vocal letting fly a long stream of conversational lyrics every verse, only for the narrator to drop his nervousness on the choruses when he realises ‘its alright its OK, help is on the way.’ It’s hard to say why the equally repetitive horn lick should sound so great here when it sounded so awful on Why Pretend? but it does – infectious, swinging and exactly right for the track, its one of the better arrangements of Gilbert’s career thus far in fact, full of the excitement and energy many of his similar tracks are missing. Gilbert also does his absolute best to keep his audience’s interest in the song going this time around, throwing just about every vocal variant he can into the mix and exploring his full range from deep growl to joyous falsetto shout. Gilbert pulls off another coup with this track – one that, unlike his other adventurous successes on this album blatantly recycles all of his old templates including a walking tempo, blaring horns and some generic if slightly off the wall lyrics. Somehow that mix of old standbys still manages to sound new, fresh and exciting – help must indeed have been on the way in terms of Gilbert’s writing powers here.

For What Its Worth is a return to another old character trick of Gilbert’s that hasn’t really been explored much so far on this album: that of the character song, with this latest Gilbert narrator coming ready with a whole back history he wants to tell us about. Telling us that he is trying to make-up with his partner after a falling out, Gilbert’s latest narrator lays it on the line how much the relationship means to him, even sacrificing his pride on the very Gilbert O’Sullivan double-meaning line ‘I’ll even apologise for it, even if what she says I did - I didn’t”. The melody is one of its creator’s best, much enhanced by some pedal steel and nice harmonies. The song is, like many others on this album, deeper than usual with some real passion behind the words, with the jokes obviously there as a self-defence mechanism to hide how much the relationship really means to the narrator, rather than just some corny throwaway pun as on this album’s last track.

The Niceness Of It All is back to the Gilbert of old, a lazy piano-based ballad about a cosy relationship with the presence of another pedal-steel guitar that gives the album yet another new sound to explore. Dig a bit deeper, though, and this song too tells quite a tough tale, about an alcoholic who finds his addiction for drink is gradually being replaced by an addiction to the girl he loves. Some of this song is as dark and sinister as O’Sullivan ever got – the minor key shadows lurking just a phrase away from the narrator’s major key happiness when the narrator’s loved one isn’t there is a particularly haunting aural image – but this song doesn’t dwell on the problems and remains largely upbeat. The middle eight about the loneliness of life without purpose -‘tied to a chair’ as the lyrics put it – says more about the narrator’s sudden happiness when his life-changing moment came along than any number of romantic chorus couplets. That distinctly uncomfortable middle eight aside, its unusual to hear such a happy song about this sort of subject matter, but this song’s lyrical themes of getting back on top of your problems and starting anew sums up this album’s heart and soul well – especially when the narrator makes it clear how unexpected his good fortune is. The long fade is pretty good too, with the band kicking up a real storm on a great rock and roll riff at the end, but as Off Centre songs go this one could do with less words and more tune. 

The theme continues on this cleverly sequenced album with Can’t Get Enough Of You, a much lighter song about the same dark idea of addiction, turning the narrator’s helplessness into a joyful singalong. This time it’s the lover herself who is the source of the narrator’s addiction and – protest and complain about his addiction as he might – its clear the character is having the time of his life. Again, though, we are told that the narrator doesn’t ‘smoke or even drink wine’ when his girl’s around– hinting at some possible darker side to the narrator when she’s not there, with Gilbert suggesting that his partner is intoxicating enough without extra unnecessary stimulants (or, less charitably, what an addictive personality the hapless narrator has). Some of Gilbert’s romantic odes can be a bit cloying but, even without his usual twist in the tale, this song hits the spot and fittingly - in the best Gilbert O’Sullivan tradition - the tune is just as infectious as the subject matter, with a melody that seems to gigglingly float away from us tantalisingly just out of reach, playfully goading into a merry chase along this song’s pretty complex harmonic structure.

Right, I’ll break it to you gently, but after the high hopes of the rest of side two, the album rather winds down a bit about now, starting with, err, Break It To Me Gently.  Built largely on one note, with a one-chord strumming guitar and not a lot else in the way of accompaniment, this song tries to create a winsomely romantic mood but Gilbert is simply cramming too many words into the song to make that idea work. O’Sullivan even gives up writing lyrics completely on parts of this track, simply ooh-ooh-ooh-ing his way through the middle eight before joining the familiar verse-into-one-line-chorus formula again. That’s a shame because, in this album’s context of things not being taken at face value, the narrator’s conviction that his partner has some bad news to tell him could have been a winning formula.

Or So They Say then ends the album on even more of a miss-fire, completely misjudging the album’s largely serious mood by giving us a terrible comedy routine over an actually quite promising melody and accompaniment. Heading back into the theme of Things That Go Bump In The Night, Gilbert reels off a list of things that people have said over the years will never happen to them, adding the rather eerie line ‘or so they say’, immediately making us doubt what might be happening here is actually that safe or that cosy. This makes the song sound like a much better bet than it really is, however. With lines like ‘Yes but did Jamiaca – no she left of her own accord’ to contend with, it’s a bit of an uphill battle for the accompanying musicians to put their usual passion and energy into the track and the sudden ending - which appears out of nowhere - is a bit of a songwriter’s con, as if Gilbert couldn’t be bothered to work out how to finish the song off.

Even with these last two songs, however, Off Centre is a nicely wacky, tuneful and genuinely funny album that offers just enough of the old Gilbert O’Sullivan with some nice teasing glimpses into what could have been the new Gilbert had his career not hit a management-induced cul-de-sac when it did. Off Centre cuts deeper than any of O’Sullivan’s earlier recordings (although later albums like Sound Of The Loop have their fair share of serious subject matters too), yet manages to be deeper without losing touch with the glorious melodies and snappy clever words that made Gilbert great in the first place. Not every track on Off Centre is a gem, but when this album’s good its very very good indeed – just cosy enough to be heart-warming and just wacky and pioneering enough to be, well, nicely off-centre. A hidden classic.


**Note – In a bizarre mix of coincidence and peculiarity that would make even John Lennon and Revolution #9 proud, the second draft of this very song about things going bump in the night was interrupted by a suddenly suicidally-jumpy computer, whose sudden leaps in the air were caused by the Lincolnshire earthquake of February 2008, which took place shortly before 1am. Ho ho ho, someone up there must really have a sense of humour!

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