Deacon Blue's City of Love: 'They continue to conjure anthems that celebrate love, work, faith, hope, going out, and coming home'
With the release of the Scottish pop-rockers fourth album since their comeback, Nicola Meighan explores what made her fall in love with them in the first place
Maybe during these strange days, so far away from the 1990s, Deacon Blue's five-year split is perceived to have been a passing hiatus. But for those of us who'd loved the band since childhood, who came of age obsessed by them, and who were so grief-stricken by the news of their disbandment that they drank all night, got thrown out of Burger King for singing and crying, then ended up face-down in the Edinburgh Waverley fountain, it felt like things would never be the same. And they never were, not really, although that would take much longer to learn.
I was a teenager when Ricky Ross, Lorraine McIntosh and co bid us farewell in 1994. The comprehensive rash incurred from being submerged in the aforementioned fountain had finally cleared up by the time of their 1999 comeback announcement, and life had shifted, too. I'd moved to London and was working for Mute records – touring with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Goldfrapp, Depeche Mode, Erasure and Einsturzende Neubauten – but was graciously granted a leave of absence to head home to Scotland and attend all of the Deacon Blue reunion shows. We queued all day and danced all night. More hollering; bawling; falling into water features; being ejected from fast food outlets. I think I loved them more than ever. They felt like the same old band.
I wonder about that now.
Friday sees the release of City of Love, Deacon Blue's terrific fourth album since they got back together. That mirrors the four studio LPs they released pre-split (1987's Raintown to '93's Seamus Heaney-invoking Whatever You Say, Say Nothing) and, throughout, City of Love enlightens and glimmers with a sense of reflection. Its title might be the most directly evocative of Ross' adopted hometown of Glasgow since their landmark debut, but its intimacy is more redolent of 1991's Fellow Hoodlums, which heralded the band's active step-down from bombastic stadium rock to chamber pop and theatre shows.
1989's Madonna chart-toppling When The World Knows Your Name was massive in scale, ambition and vision ('The World Is Lit By Lightning'; 'Silhouette'; a 'distant gaze that's missing me'; those famous Campsies over Christmas), but its follow-up, Fellow Hoodlums, took us, up-close, arm-in-arm, through Ross' beloved Dear Green Place. He guided us through after-hours Friday nights; round the beauty of Hope Street traffic lights; up against a hushed and urgent tryst in the pen behind Sloanes (those stilettos!); down leafy, sheltered Kelvin walkways.
City of Love feels closer than that.
It feels like we find Ricky Ross writing from a more personal – and maybe more vulnerable – viewpoint than before. City of Love seeks out the quiet moments, far from the bombast. From the solace of shared candle-light (the glorious, Fleetwood Mac-invoking 'In Our Room') to the solitude of nature (the gospel-rock of 'A Walk In The Woods'), it is poignant, pensive, yet never maudlin. If 'Intervals' stunning, astral pop reminds us of the ticking clock ('so little time'), then the swoon-inducing soul of 'Come On In' urges us to make the most of our days, and nights. It finds Ross on rare boudoir-romeo mode: a sundown overture ('come to life around midnight'); a fallible confession ('I got it wrong so many times'); a ragged, come-hither catch in his voice. And that's not to mention the heart-sore, jangling swagger of 'Take Me'. Take that, Barry White.
There were intimate moments on Fellow Hoodlums, not least the moonlit warmth of 'The Wildness', and 'I Will See You Tomorrow's unmade bed, but, looking back, that album was instilled with the assuredness (cynicism, even?) that underscored much of Ricky Ross's lyricism before their split. These days, their songs feel more gentle and doubting. Compare, say, 1991's 'A Brighter Star Than You Will Shine' with this year's 'Intervals' ("when you grow up to be a star, don't leave home for anything less than you are").
Before they went their separate ways, Deacon Blue released a final sign-off: a stand-alone single released in the wake of Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, whose titles typified Ross' persuasive certainty back then (or certainly, his impression of that). Its devastating A-Side, 'I Was Right And You Were Wrong', suggested Deacon Blue's demise was always written in the stars ('nothing lasts forever'), while its equally gorgeous flipside, 'Bound To Love', sounded riled by the inevitability and entrapment of ardour (among other things, from poetry to politics: Ross has always been shrewdly ambiguous). I'm not sure that their records since have ever conveyed that strident confidence.
Maybe the light – and maybe the rest – changed while Deacon Blue disbanded. The beat of 1989's 'constant heart' still resounds, but now so too does City Of Love's 'constant doubt'. What Bob Dylan nailed in a couple of lines, Ricky Ross has explored beautifully across the last four Deacon Blue albums: 'I was so much older then / I'm younger than that now.'
Their first post-split LP, The Hipsters, was also their first as a different group. Bassist Ewen Vernal had departed (to be replaced by Lewis Gordon), but it was the loss of guitarist Graeme Kelling, who died in 2004, that irrevocably changed Deacon Blue. His absence is always felt. On City of Love, Ross sings that 'it's the spaces I seek', and there's increasing room in their music and words, for those who're gone; for those who're missed; for those (in)tangible absences Ross touches on in 'A Walk In The Woods'. ('Holding on's like holding rain').
Just before I fell in the fountain, I wrote my Higher English essay about meeting Graeme Kelling at a Pearlfishers concert (well, he walked past us and said hello on the stairs of Glasgow's Old Athaeneum. That was beyond our wildest dreams). By the time of their reunion shows, he'd taken to lending us his umbrella when we were queuing outside the various venues: an impressively brave act of kindness on his part, in the face of certified stalkers downing vodka in glass lemonade bottles.
He's always there: in the memories, in the elements, in the music, in the spaces. But it also bears noting that current guitarist and co-songwriter Gregor Philp has done a nigh-on miraculous job of allowing Kelling to still feel ever-present (and ever-missed), while rejuvenating the band, and their sound, and Ross in particular. The pair co-produced City Of Love, and it stands as one of Deacon Blue's loveliest, and strongest, records.
Drummer Dougie Vipond continues to provide Deacon Blue's variously nuanced and rousing heartbeat; Jim Prime's keyboard action has probably instigated more dancefloor sing-a-longs than any other; and Lorraine McIntosh is the reason that some of us fell for Deacon Blue in the first place. She gave the band a woman's voice, and presence, and viewpoint, which distinguished them from their myriad male-only Scottish pop counterparts in the 1980s, and she's still a vital force. Her voice, as with Ross', sounds better than ever.
They're still a riot, incidentally. Ageing has not musically mellowed Deacon Blue. They continue to conjure anthems that celebrate love, work, faith, hope, going out, and coming home. They're still adventurous and forward-looking (is their their first album to revel in post-rock?), but it comes with the acquiescence of what has come, and gone, before.
For those of us who've loved them since childhood, it also comes with the realisation that we'll never fall in love with a band that way again. And that's heartbreaking, but it's also heartening: everything changes, and it stays the same. The lights go down, the lights come up, in our unmade beds and our cities of love. We get older, if we're in luck. We try to hold those that we've lost. The wind and the rain falls around.
City of Love is out now.
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