Cornelius Cardew

We Only Want the Earth

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There was a great deal of consternation when Cornelius Cardew, renowned for such seminal works as the graphic score Treatise, abandoned the avant-garde to concentrate on the production of socialist-oriented workers' songs. Before the release of this album, the contemporary listener might have wondered what all the bother was about, as Cardew's later output -- while certainly miles away from his previous work -- still retained a great deal of beauty. The songs were stirring and heartfelt, similar to the contemporaneous work of composers such as Frederic Rzewski. Just possibly, however, what was actually performed and heard more often at the time was the type of piece presented here; if so, the resentment is much more understandable. Arranged for essentially folk-rock instrumentation, the tunes themselves are sometimes quite fetching, if shorn of the complexity and depth they often possessed in Cardew's pianistic renditions. The problem, and it's a severe one, is the vocals, or more precisely, the lyrics. Regardless of one's political affiliations, these lyrics have all the subtlety of a propaganda poster, and a crude one at that. Instead of transmitting his message through the music's evocation as he (and Rzewski) did with instrumental music, he insists on bludgeoning the listener over the head with simplistic sloganeering. The singers rail against capitalist bloodsuckers, imperialist pigs, etc., with all the smug self-righteousness of those born to wealth (as was Cardew) who find it easy to "slum," knowing they're never very far away from home and warmth. "Ever since World War II/U.S. imperialism and its followers/Have been launching wars of aggression/Revolution is the main trend in the world today...Wages are falling/Conditions are worsening/As the capitalist system approaches its doom...We have nothing to lose but our chains." The listener yearns for a face to slap. The vocals themselves, it may be added, are by and large execrable. It should be noted for Keith Rowe completists that he appears somewhere herein (and is represented on the cover by a rare photo with a "normal" guitar on his knee!). That and, presumably, the album's historical value make it something that the fan of British avant-garde music may indeed want to own. But it's unlikely to be listened to very often unless one needs to be reminded to "Smash! Smash! Smash the social contract!"