Q Magazine * * * Star review – Breathe – The Acoustic Sessions (Paul Davis)
Following swiftly on the heels of the English and Welsh language versions of the LP, come the modish Unplugged sessions. At one time Mike Peters was seconds away from being inducted into that portion of the Hall Of Fame earmarked for windswept Celtic rock ‘n roll visionaries when he knocked it on the head for The Alarm from the stage of Brixton Academy. Encumbered by the weight of expectation and history, and motivated either by bravery or stupidity, Peters sallied forth and started all over again. He’s shrugged off his critics with a nonchalant shrug, and his latest work is alive with the rediscovered zest and ambition of a man with his appetite for the fray fully restored. Stripped down to its elemental components, Breathe is more powerful again – the familiar recipe of pungent and poignant songs of love and protest given their head by the space of the arrangements and the hungrily emoted vocals – great tunes too.>:
Both the Waterboys and the Alarm toured with U2 in the early days, and the Alarm, perhaps more than any band, suffered from the comparison. They had the misfortune to be from Wales, which nobody knows anything about, rather than from Ireland, which everybody knows is involved in some powerful political or religious struggle of some sort, involving terrorists and freedom fighters and all the hallmarks of an Important Area, with the unique advantage over the usual such places that the participants speak English. This gave U2’s music a popular political credibility that the Alarm’s never quite achieved, and now U2 are megastars and the Alarm are “that skinny band with the big hair that played punk with acoustic guitars; you know, they had that video on MTV way back at the beginning where they’re in this room with the lyrics to the song spray-painted on the walls?” And, frankly, both bands eventually earned their fates. U2 made the richly textured The Unforgettable Fire, then The Joshua Tree, which I consider of modern music’s true Masterpieces, and then transformed themselves into fabulously rich comic-book characters. Meanwhile, the Alarm made a great album called Strength, but followed it with the strangely synthetic Eye of the Hurricane, which dissipated much of their stylistic momentum, so that when they returned to their original idiom with Change they had begun to sound uncomfortably often like they were stuck in a ditch somewhere, telling each other the same stories again and again. A solid greatest-hits album seemed like a good regrouping strategy, but the album that followed it, Raw, was a painfully hollow embarrassment that would probably have been better off not released. The band then broke up, to nobody’s particular surprise, as the tension between Mike Peters and guitarist Dave Sharp had become plainly evident both on record and in concert. Dave Sharp subsequently made a solo album that I had no interest in, but I had some hope that Peters would find some new blood and have another go at it. The first two singles of his that appeared, however, gave me no reason for optimism. “Back into the System” and “It Just Don’t Get Any Better Than This” were both telling titles, and the songs seemed like proof that, in fact, it wasn’t going to get any better than this, ever. Still, periodic playings of Strength and Standards kept my Alarm enthusiasm high enough that when Peter’s album finally came out, and a few copies paddled gamely across the Atlantic, I figured I still ought to be supportive. The good news is that the album is somewhat better than I expected. The new band (“the Poets”) sounds good, and doesn’t sound exactly like Nigel, Eddie and Dave. The songs, most by Mike and a few co-written with keyboard player Jules Jones, neither shy from the anthemic nor rely on it. The credits are filled with Welsh names, which lays to rest a fear I had that some label would set Mike up with a corps of LA studio hacks and try to turn him into Bon Jovi. My two biggest worries were that Mike would try to do some wholly different kind of music for which he has no facility, and would fail disastrously, and that he would try to do exactly the same kind of music the Alarm ran into the ground, which would in a way have been worse. In fact he does neither. There are songs here that sound like they could have been Alarm songs, of course, but none that strike me as products of an unreasonable hope that a mathematical interpolation of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” into “Absolute Reality” will somehow yield an artistic breakthrough without necessitating a new bout of creativity. The new band finds sources of energy in smaller touches than was the Alarm’s wont, like “Who’s Gonna Make the Peace?”‘s stuttering guitars, the bowed synthesizer riff that opens “Poetic Justice”, and the looping drums of “Into the 21st Century”. The cover of Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” is surprisingly agreeable, and a much more inspired choice of material than the somewhat pro forma rendition of “Rockin’ in the Free World” that the Alarm did on Raw. The bad news, inevitably enough, is that as a songwriter Mike still has some relatively obvious weaknesses. He still seems convinced that a passionate enough delivery can rescue lyrical cliches, for one thing, and while there were some early Alarm songs that I think actually managed that, it’s not going to rescue “The train kept a rollin’, a thunderin’ down the miles”, or “Train a Comin'” (which the previous lyric isn’t even from), and it doesn’t keep me from thinking that “If I can’t have U / I don’t want nothing” was probably already getting old back when the Bee Gee’s loaned something quite similar to Yvonne Elliman. The “America” diptych in the middle of the album (the heartland-ode “Levi’s and Bibles” and the awkwardly naive (if sincere) racism denunciation “Beautiful Thing”) also seems painfully shallow and basically inadvisable to me, and mysterious given the overall tone of Welsh-centricity. In the end, Mike himself summarizes the situation best, in the closing track, “A New Chapter (Reprise)”: “A new chapter in the book of my life / A new song in a different key”. Breathe is not a new book, and not a song in a new style, but it is another several fine pages of a book whose good parts I, at least, always wished were longer.