There was a time when Artistic Overreach was a dreaded but inevitable stage of a performer’s career trajectory. Hot on the heels of a colossal mainstream success, a singer or group would respond to the yearning within them to rip up the hit blueprint and leap into the abyss. Thus would follow concept albums, monstrous, sprawling double and triple record sets, stylistic gearshifts into unfamiliar genres and excursions into the realm of classical composition.
However, the urge to stretch has been conspicuous by its absence in the 1990′s. As attention deficit disorder reaches epidemic proportions-start preparing eulogies for last year’s ska-punk winners-few artists have the luxury to indulge themselves in a Tusk , a Sandinista! or a Secret Life of Plants . The rule book on risk-taking in the 90′s was written by U2: reinvent yourself into the Ringling Brothers but never forget your sweeping stadium ballads. Probably the only big act to challenge the preconceptions of an established constituency was the Stone Roses, whose long-aborning 1995 blues odyssey, Second Coming , jettisoned all of their characteristic hooks and harmonies. But while Second Coming was a dispiriting dud, it was not so much an example of egregious indulgence as what happens when you smoke too much hashish and lock yourself in a recording studio in Wales for months. For a hall of fame specimen of Artistic Overreach, the spotlight falls on Saturnz Return (London), the new double-CD by jungle gent Goldie. As its title suggests, it’s on a whole other planet.
Music scribblers enamored of the oppressive, clattering dance genre known since 1992 as either jungle or drum ‘n’ bass had plenty of ammunition for their screeds. They could write about the disaffection felt by black Britons for the saturation of Acid House and its airplane hangars full of grinning, Ecstasy-addled, touchy-feely, whistle-blowing acolytes. They could write about jungle’s intricate drum patterns, subterranean bass belches and hurtling velocity as music that mirrored the paranoia and claustrophobia of the inner cities. They could write that this was desperate music for desperate times, that the mere act of dancing to this frenetic din was, in and of itself, an act of survival.
But that kind of thing only goes so far without a larger-than-life linchpin figure to humanize the music. They don’t come much larger than life than Clifford Price, a.k.a. Goldie. Big, black and blonde, this British B-boy has, in his 32 years, been a petty criminal, a break dancer, a graffiti artist, a manufacturer of customized gold tooth caps (he sports a gleaming mouthful of the product, hence the moniker), an intimate companion of Björk and, at press time, Naomi Campbell. His debut double CD, 1995′s Timeless , was the first piece of compelling evidence that jungle could live and breathe outside the dance floor and beyond the parameters of compilation albums.
Mixing R&B-tinged vocals, long, hallucinatory keyboard swells and beats that sounded like arbitrarily hurled firecrackers, Goldie spawned a race of armchair junglists. But that race bowed down to a fresh figurehead in 1997 with the advent of Roni Size’s New Forms. The Bristol collective’s ability to mesh double bass, acoustic guitar, horns and an actual flesh-and-blood drummer into its propulsive repertoire won it widespread mainstream acclaim and Britain’s pop Pulitzer, the prestigious Mercury Prize. It also caused jungle to be perceived as having the same relation to contemporary dance music as jazz funk did to disco.
So, in response to the gauntlet thrown down by New Forms , Goldie did what any genre figurehead would do. He wrote a symphony. A 60-minute symphony for computer, sampler, mixing desk, drum machine and 40-piece orchestra designed to deal with his abandonment issues. It’s called “Mother.”
Albert Brooks had a movie out last year called Mother that no one went to see, but at least he dealt with his mom-related angst in a comedic fashion. Goldie’s epic has no intentional laughs. It kicks off with 10 minutes of hissing perhaps meant to paint an aural picture of the fetal Goldie at peace in the womb. Then those drums start clattering and life turns harsh and ugly for the next hour until a pastoral-almost Lloyd Webberian-string motif announces a healing of old wounds.
Goldie’s one of these guys, like Tricky (with whom he once physically clashed for the hand of Björk) and the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, who don’t actually play anything or program anything or produce anything. Instead, he utilizes studio practitioners to exorcise the cacophony of sound fragments writhing around inside his head. The coaxing of “Mother” from his noggin must have been as complex as a salvage operation on the Titanic ; as frustrating, too, being as the number of individuals destined to make it all the way through the marathon dwindles to single figures once you remove the countless engineers, producers, orchestrators and musicians involved in its construction.
I’m no expert, but I’m guessing that the second CD in the Saturnz Return set will probably be regarded as the more commercial offering. It’s got big-name guest shots: Noel Gallagher smears distorto-guitar on “Temper Temper,” KRS-1 does a George Jetson-like free-style rap on “Digital” (“Representing the Internet!” he declares at one point, trying to sound millennial) and David Bowie, his own voyage into jungle a fool’s errand, emotes on “Truth.” It’s got range: The flute-driven “Dragonfly” is perkily tropical enough to accompany a commercial for coconut-scented conditioner; “Demonz” is out-and-out ultra-violence, with crushing percussion seemingly sampled from discharged firearms. It’s even got songs: Goldie’s long-serving in-house singer, Diane Charlemagne, fronts the Sade-like “Believe” and “Crystal Clear,” and the jungle auteur himself lets a whispery, tremulous vocal loose on “Letter of Fate,” which sets to music a suicide note he penned some years ago.
There is much about Goldie to induce angina in the marketing executive assigned the task of introducing him to a wide American audience. He’s an artist who doesn’t have a clearly defined role: the hip-hop, R&B, jazz funk and rock components in his music defy categorization, making him ineligible to fit into any kind of radio format, and his vaulting ambitions are continually let down by his stultifyingly boring live show. You can’t even get away with calling him an artist of the future because he’s got a bunch of songs that sound like they wouldn’t be out of place on an old Roy Ayers album. Luckily, marketing him is someone else’s headache. As long as I’ve got a CD player with a shuffle option, Goldie can overreach for the sky.