If there’s one thing Scottish singer-songwriter Edwyn Collins knows how to do, it’s tell stories. Here’s a pretty good one. It was 1995, and he and his band were making the rounds on the summer festival circuit, riding a wave of success from his hit single “A Girl Like You.” At one particular gig, sharing the bill with Blues Traveler, his band’s gear didn’t arrive on time. So Blues Traveler offered to lend him some equipment.
Mr. Collins gratefully accepted. Which shouldn’t have been a problem, except that he likes to strike ironic rock star poses on stage, jump up on monitors and drum kits, and swing his microphone stand around à la Rod Stewart circa 1979. When in the midst of his calisthenics he accidentally bent the Blues Traveler boys’ mike stand, his American rock brethren were not amused.
“After the show, Blues Traveler and all their entourage came into the dressing room, locked all the exits and closed the bathroom windows,” said Mr. Collins, whose pale complexion and thin frame barely mask the grinning rogue within. “The tour manager says, ‘Listen, you don’t do that fuckin’ shit!’ And our drummer Paul Cook [a former member of the Sex Pistols] went, ‘Oh, I’m scared. You’re scaring me.’ There were 16 of them and four of us. And I said, ‘Well, what do you want to do, fucking kick my head in?'” He laughed just thinking about it. “It was really bizarre. I had forgotten it was their equipment, but they thought it was very disrespectful.”
The incident says a lot about Mr. Collins’ subtle sense of satire, and also gives you an idea why his so-called overnight success with “A Girl Like You” was actually 15 years in the making. As the leader of Orange Juice back in the 1980’s, Mr. Collins wrote smart, self-consciously naïve pop songs backed by jangly guitars and rounded off by his own distinctive croon. The music sounded stunningly fresh in the cynical post-punk era. But after amassing a cult following over several albums, the members of Orange Juice went their separate ways, and Mr. Collins faded into vaunted alt-pop obscurity. Suddenly, it’s 1995, and in walks Edwyn from out of the mist with a delicious hit and a surreal case of chart-topping stardom.
Mr. Collins, 36, has just released his fourth solo album, I’m Not Following You (Setanta/Epic), which veers from one musical style to the next, mixing classic 70’s breakbeats with disco, soul, rock and even country. “It’s a reflection of my personalities,” he said. “All 12 of them.” Does he think the new album contains a hit as big as the one that made him a millionaire after all those years toiling in the fringe? Not really. “Obviously, I want to be popular,” Mr. Collins said, “but I’m not interested in populism as a political philosophy. I’m not trying to appeal to the marketplace by exploiting the formula of ‘A Girl Like You.'”
That’s true. This time around, Mr. Collins seems more interested in exploiting the 70’s nostalgia fit that has spread like a contagion through pop culture-i.e., VH1’s relentless 70’s flashback programming; movies like Boogie Nights and The Ice Storm ; and the return of Sergio Valente jeans and Diane Von Furstenburg’s wrap dresses. Mr. Collins insists that he’s not cashing in, but celebrating the music he loved in his youth. “I’m interested in the R&B idea of going back to the old school,” he said.
Mr. Collins came of age in Scotland in the 70’s when kids would walk around the schoolyard carrying their favorite albums to signify the music they were into. “I would have David Bowie, Roxy Music and Sparks albums,” he said. “The kids who were into King Crimson would look down their noses at the glam-rock bands. We, in turn, would look down our noses at the people with Slade albums.”
Hence the track “Seventies Night,” a song about the transitional period between disco and punk; aptly enough, it’s sung by guest vocalist Mark E. Smith, lead singer of the Fall and a walking oracle of punkdom. “You’ve got the abrasive, astringent Mark E. Smith vocal next to this track inspired by the Fat Back Band’s ‘Do the Bus Stop,'” Mr. Collins said with a chuckle. But it’s also about how everywhere the singer toured last year, from Boulder, Colo., to Essen, Germany, there was a “Seventies Night” being featured. “Cheesy as it is, I thought it was significant,” he said.
Mr. Collins possesses a fairly rare satirical gift. He’s one of the few contemporary pop songwriters-Elvis Costello being the prime example-who isn’t afraid to allow real invective to enter his music. On 1995’s Gorgeous George , his frustration and disgust with the music industry was readily apparent. As he sang on “The Campaign for Real Rock”: “Your frazzled brains are putrefying/ Repackaged, sold and sanitized/ The devil’s music exorcised/ You live … you lie, you die/ Just to perpetuate the lie.”
The problem with Mr. Collins’ albums is that, though immaculately produced, they aren’t always easy to listen to the whole way through. Mr. Collins himself can be more entertaining than his music. In person, he’s an engaging conversationalist. A pop-culture obsessive with a wry take on everything from his Japanese cult following to the marketing of Brit pop, he can nail an audience with his dead-on asides and monologues.
Luckily, for all its mixed-up styles, I’m Not Following You is a more consistent album than previous efforts. The single “The Magic Piper” is a catchy pop tune with an infectious, fruity flute loop that sounds like a long-lost De La Soul track. It’s also got one of the funniest videos to come down the pike in a while. A piss-take on the boy-band phenomenon in Britain, it features five professional dancers in prosthetic Edwyn masks and satin suits performing a Take That-style dance number in a club filled with decadent partygoers in 70’s glam gear. As the song reaches its climax, the roof caves in.
It’s this inspired sense of humor that sets Mr. Collins apart from the zillions of male singer-songwriters peddling their wares in a crowded music market. Still, he pulls a reflective song or two out of his sleeve on his new record. “I’m not always being ironic,” he said. “There’s one song called ‘For the Rest of My Life,’ and it’s completely irony-free when I say, ‘It doesn’t matter when I win or lose as long as I am free to choose.'”
He let that one hang in the air for a second, then said: “Irony’s not going to be any use when you’re playing Mango Tango’s in Newport News, Virginia.”