These days we offer platitudes to a lot of musicians who come out of the woodwork to make a new stand on wobbly legs, or have genuinely brilliant work heard and recognized by more arduous music fans who missed it the first time around in passing, or younger folks who never had the chance in the first place. And rightfully so. It seems odd to place Kevin Ayers in this category, but he is perhaps the most enigmatic of all. Ayers, who along with Robert Wyatt and Mike Ratledge founded Soft Machine, left after its second album to pursue a career as a solo artist, releasing seminal psychedelic classics like Joy of a Toy, Shooting at the Moon, and Bananamour, to name just three. He's recorded and performed with everybody from Syd Barrett (who appeared as a sideman on Ayers' first platter) to Phil Manzanera, Eno, John Cale, Nico, and Elton John. He influenced David Bowie, and was the musical companion of stalwart jazzmen like Lol Coxhill and prog rockers like Mike Oldfield, Steve Hillage (speaking of enigmas) and the late guitarist Ollie Halsall (a dear friend of Ayers, who was truly shaken at his untimely death). Odd, but fitting. Throughout the '80s due to rather bacchanalian circumstances, Ayers' final record for Virgin was not promoted; he began to retreat from the life and music he'd created: from England, then from touring, then from recording, too. He surfaced briefly with an acoustic album recorded in France with Fairground Attraction, did a bit of collaboration with Ultramarine, and the Wizard of Twiddly, and then poof...gone.
Unfairground, issued in Great Britain on Lo-Max recordings (the same label that gave us back the Go-Betweens until Grant McLennan's death) marks Ayers welcome return to recording. Ayers befriended an American artist named Timothy Shepard, who heard tape recordings of Ayers new songs (made mostly on a cassette recorder at his kitchen table), and solicited younger players he knew were fans of Ayers' work to get involved: Norman Blake from Teenage Fanclub, Gary Olson, Bill Wells, Ladybug Transistor, Frank Reader from Trash Can Sinatras, and Candie Payne and Euros Childs from Gorky's Zygotic Minci were all part of these wondrous sessions that took place in New York Tucson, London, and Glasgow. Old friends Phil Manzanera, Robert Wyatt, Hugh Hopper, and Bridget Saint John also lent their talents as well. The truly honorable Bernard MacMahon of Lo-Max -- also an Ayers fan -- signed him, and the rest is ready for your ears.
Unfairground contains ten songs that run a tad over 33 minutes. Simply put, it is prime Ayers. His approach hasn't changed: he's still humorous, bright, witty, and ironic, but there is great emotional and poetic depth in these songs. They're adorned with strings, wonderfully spare keyboard work, acoustic and electric guitars, and unobtrusive drums and percussion with other sundry shadings and textures. They all serve Ayers' trademark wry yet emotionally expressive baritone voice, which is no worse for the wear of the years. The songs, like the double-edged opener "Only Heaven Knows," with its mariachi brass and female backing chorus, are polished, fully realized, and gorgeously executed -- by Ayers as much as his counterparts. They are positively inspired. The melody and arrangement in this song are cheery, but the lyrics belie something else: a vulnerability that dares to look ambiguity in the face and not flinch. Wyatt's voice on "Cold Shoulder," underscores a contradiction: Wyatt is an old shoulder, but is far from cold. His backing vocal lies in stark contrast to the emotions in Ayers' lyric. As the strings highlight the plight of the protagonist who is now a man on an island, he is wrapped in warmth and support,. This creates a split of course: how can a man be so alone in the middle of such beauty? Ayers' irony and raw confessionalism serve the purpose these questions hang on very well. It is followed by "Walk on Water," is a meditation on falsity and the wearing of masks for show. The consequences of which are experienced in his words: "they reap what they sow/in their own way." The jaunty Baroque pop melody is tight and breezy, but the strings are so wonderfully textured they provide the solid ground Ayers walks upon, and the horns add depth to that foundation. There is Ayers' acoustic guitar, of course, which strums it out alone, facing the truth of his words without making a fuss. There is a lonesome, delirious pedal steel in "Friends and Strangers," a rainbow arrayed pop song, that shuffles and snakes its way forward as layers of backing vocals, cello, and a snappy snare drum and bass drum keep it all on track. Ayers is filled with a disappointed wonder, or rather, his protagonist is. Reflecting on broken love: the deceit, treachery, and an unwillingness to see things as they are without judgment, doesn't stray from the path of breezy reportage into maudlin sentiment.
The lithe bluesy swing in "Shine a Light," can be heard in almost every layer of the tune, whether it be the wonderfully taut and tender -- and mildly desperate -- love-grooving horn section, the restrained but tasty electric guitar break, or the chorus backing vocal -- all of these serve, with the whisper of a B-3 in the verse, the desperate, deep longing in the singer's voice. And while there isn't a weak moment here, songs like "Brainstorm," with its out of kilter acoustic piano, growling brooding vocal, and Manzanera's wonky-wail guitar break make them special indeed. (The growl and anger in Ayers' voice on this tune, especially on the chorus, is reminiscent of old mate and nemesis John Cale's on "Guts," that was written about him.) Add to this the gorgeous duet vocal by Saint John on "Baby Come Home," with its squeezebox fills, ukulele, and elegant, graceful acoustic guitar fills that are underscored by the mariachi brass, and you can get floored.
The album's brevity certainly lends to the emotional impact that Ayers' songs have. Many of them, in fact most of them despite their humor, are a bit melancholy, to say the least, but Ayers is never maudlin. And this is the most astonishing thing about this record: it's like the guy who recorded Whatevershebringswesing, Joy of a Toy, Bananamour, Diamond Jack and the Queen of Pain, and Still Life with Guitar never left. Yeah, he's older, his voice is deeper, but it's still utterly nuanced and commands complete authority over his lyrics, even as he makes it appear to the listener that it just falls out of the bemused mind of a quick-witted Lothario. There's some regret and pathos, too, but the craft and the poetry are impeccable; unpretentious, accessible, and adventurous all at the same time.
Ayers is a genuine enigma in an era when there aren't many; in fact, coming back as he has to record again italicizes this. Now that the record is appearing in America as well as in Europe, we can only hope his near terminal shyness doesn't propel one of his signature disappearing acts just as things begin to happen again: we would all be the poorer for it. Furthermore, one suspects, so would he. Unfairground is one of the great records to come out of Great Britain in 2007 and adds exponentially to the legacy and well-deserved reputation of one of the great songsmiths that rock sometimes doesn't know it produced.