Glancing at the tracklist for Money’s sophomore LP Suicide Songs, one might suspect singer/songwriter Jamie Lee has a tenuous relationship with subtlety. Titular track aside, the record touts audacious titles such as “Cocaine Christmas and an Alcoholic’s New Year” and opening anthem “I am the Lord.” The album art is no less provocative, featuring a par-naked Lee balancing a knife on his forehead. Though these names and images may seem flippant on paper, the gorgeous density of Money’s music elevates them contextually; there isn’t a scrap of irony to be had here.
The Mancunian band made a grand entrance with their debut record The Shadow of Heaven (Bella Union) in 2013, a dazzling hymnal pop opus that is nothing if not beautiful and original. The album dealt with dense themes, manifesting in songs such as “So Long (God is Dead)” and “The Cruelty of Godliness.”
In keeping with the last record, Lee is approaching concepts laden with baggage and trying to look at them from a different vantage point, perhaps imbuing them with new meaning along the way.
“Above all else, I’m just trying to project and portray a poetic truth,” Lee said in a press release. “Suicide is about anonymity, to the point where you don’t exist, which I definitely feel in my songwriting and as a person. But rather than writing myself out of anonymity, I want to remain there, in this record at least. It’s recognizing a kind of sacrificial nature, in making artistic choices. By rummaging around in your feelings and trying to make sense of life, to the detriment of your health, there might be some poetic value to what you have created.”
In a strange way, despite the intensity of Suicide Songs, it does seem Lee has achieved a sort of anonymity, if only due to the force of the album’s instrumental arrangements. His vocals are less pristine on this new material…there is a drunk and snarling slouch to them, and they easily surrender to the orchestral maelstrom of each track. He sounds raw, worn and drowned by desperation, but with good reason. In a press release, Lee confirms that he “wanted the album to sound like it was ‘coming from death’ which is where these songs emerged.”
It seemed that The Shadow Of Heaven would be a difficult act to follow up, but this new record is nowhere near slumping. Instead, it’s leaping upwards towards vast sonic peaks employing horns, strings, choirs, sorrow, and pandemonium. It is, in a word, a BIG album. Sprawling and open, it practically generates its own tidal system.
“I am the Lord” kicks off with lulling strings that resolve to twanging guitar. It builds with atmospheric hand drums, and ghostly harmonies reminiscent of Cocteau Twins. Lee diminishes the implication of the song’s title when he sings “I don’t want to be god, I just don’t want to be human.” It’s the kind of otherworldly, yet oddly relatable statement that has become Money’s lyrical trademark.
Part lullaby, part funeral ballad, “You Look Like a Sad Painting on Both Sides of the Sky” is a strangely sweet song. It is one of the more sonically sparse offerings on the record, sticking to hushed acoustic guitar and piano, with understated drums and cello. But its pretty simplicity doesn’t ebb its melancholy. In fact, the contrast seems to heighten our sense of woe as Lee belts out lines such as: “there will be music all around, when they put me in the ground.”
The entire album is rife with this sort of tension, whether it lies in the discrepancy between lyrical content and the key of the song, or Lee’s ability as a composer to make you feel uplifted and miserable at the same time. This isn’t a record for people who like background music. The closer you listen, the more nuances you can enjoy. It’s a piece of work that unfurls more with every play.
In “Night Came” Lee establishes himself as a modern maestro of crescendo. The track commences in sprawling, muted riffs only to rise steadily into a skyward collision. But the album’s most powerful track is without a doubt “All My Life,” a banging six and a half minutes of heartrending majors and plummeting minor chords. This is Lee at his biggest, holding nothing back. Not reverb, not gospel harmonies, not lead guitar, and certainly not a full drum kit. But once again, the emotive scale of the song is undercut by bleak lyrics. In the chorus Lee confesses “all my life I’ve been searching for something, so I always ended up with nothing,” a truth that leaves him neither here nor there.
Part of what makes this record so great is that it was composed as nothing less than an album; as a continuous narrative in which each song sonically relates to the next, like chapters in a book. While so many contemporary LPs seem thrown together as a compilation of disparate tracks, Suicide Songs maintains a dense thread throughout its 42 minutes. And this thread is as much formal as it is textual. Lee delivers a consistent dose of heady subject matter, yes, but he’s also managed to arrange this album to bear the aural equivalent of dramatic structure; grabbing our attention with “I am the Lord,” building to the crashing climax of “All My Life,” and settling with “Cocaine Christmas and an Alcoholic’s New Year” (the latter having Lee at his most Tom Waits).
At the end of the day, Lee does seem to prefer the overt to the subtle, as he plainly explains that “the record is morbid and bleak, and never resolves itself. The only real kind of triumphant realization is being able to express the morbidity of the situation I found myself in.” It’s the kind of statement you’d expect from someone like Lee, a self-effacing British musician, but I’d say that Suicide Songs is triumphant all on its own. Period.
Suicide Songs is out now on Bella Union.