A Closer Look/Love's a Prima Donna

Steve Harley / Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel

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A Closer Look/Love's a Prima Donna Review

by Dave Thompson

An eccentric snapshot of Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel as their mid- to late-'70s downfall closed in around them, this two-on-one collection pairs 1976's Love Is a Prima Donna album with the first of the now-innumerable "best of" collections which highlight the group's hit career, A Closer Look. It is not a comfortable pairing. The compilation tracks (one through ten) are unequivocable brilliance, tracing Harley's vision through the decadent delicacies of the Human Menagerie and Psychomodo albums, and onto the staggering hybrid of hubris and humor which was 1975's The Best Years of Our Lives. Who could have guessed, as the chart-topping, heart-stopping "Make Me Smile" conquered everything in its path, that Harley would slip so far, so fast? Released just 18 months (and one more album, the negligible Timeless Flight) after Best Years, Love's a Prima Donna was best distinguished by Harley's assault on the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" -- distinguished, that is, if there is any distinction whatsoever to be drawn from a self-parody which tears the fabric of every last shred of conviction Harley ever exuded. Neither is it an isolated deviation. Never the most straightforward lyricist, the early Harley was as audacious as he was arrogant, and as absurd as he was either -- an unbeatable combination. Dip back into the Closer Look portion and marvel, slack-jawed, at "Sebastian," more than six operatic minutes of utterly preposterous meaninglessness, disguised as the most profound sound on earth. Then fast forward to "Innocence and Guilt." Somewhere along the line, Harley not only lost the absurdity, he also calmed the audacity and the result, while still capable of touching some sublime heights ("Finally a Card Came," "Prima Donna" itself), was as ugly as it sounds. In moments of irrational forgiveness, those which flash past as A Closer Look plays through, Steve Harley stands revealed as one of the greatest songwriters and most captivating performers of his generation, a man for whom seas might part and loaves might multiply. Even without the hit single which originally thrust him to fame, "Judy Teen," A Closer Look exudes a visionary majesty which places Harley on a pedestal alongside any hero you can name, and a few inches higher than most of them. And if you switch off the player as the tenth track closes, he remains there. Let it play on, though, and the whole world darkens -- and, to paraphrase his own "Tumbling Down," it's not only the blues that they've done something to. Oh dear.

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