To say that it One Day I’m Going To Soar is the least great of the four Dexys albums is to praise it with faint damnation. From 1980 to 1985 Kevin Rowland led Dexys Midnight Runners through one of the purplest patches in pop music history. They were lyrical, sharp, ultra-intense, and pre-posterously ambitious. To borrow their own verb of choice: they burned.
The band peaked with Don’t Stand Me Down, which was a failure in every sense but ar-tistic. The high watermark was ‘This Is What She’s Like’, eleven dizzying minutes of sui generis genius. I can’t describe it, but I will say this: ‘This Is What She’s Like’ was the only song cited in my wedding day speech, because I knew I had met my future wife when I felt the joy conveyed by Rowland’s closing wordless whoops, and I understood his articulation of the limits of language.
1985 did not know what to do with Don’t Stand Me Down, and it looked the other way. Rowland dropped the band and took up cocaine – good call! He was bottled offstage at Reading in 1999, wearing a camisole in front of a field of Red Hot Chilli Peppers fans. This was the kind of thing we expected from Kevin (“compromise is the devil talking”, goes ‘The Occasional Flicker’), but at times you wished he would compromise more and risk skull fractures less.
So the fact that Dexys even exist, that there’s even an album in 2012, is a cause for celebration. I would give Rowland 5/5 just for being alive. But you have to ask in an album review if the idea of a 2012 Dexys is matched by the reality of a dozen new songs; whether the new music lives up to the legend. Well: sort of.
One Day I’m Going to Soar is an intelligent, moving album with a beginning, an end, and not much of a middle. There’s a clear linear narrative: the story of a relationship between the protagonist (they’re a little coy about this, but it’s real-life Kevin) and a fictional woman to whom he may or may not commit. Ultimately, you find, the relationship never had a chance, as the story becomes more about Kevin Rowland’s inability, apparently hardwired, to be anything other than alone. “I still believe in love,” he asserts in ‘It’s OK John Joe’, “I just don’t know what it is / Not really.”
‘Now’ opens the album, an old-school, storming Dexys statement of intent: “Well I know that I’ve been crazy / And that could not be denied / But inside of me there’s always been / A secret urge to fly”. ‘Lost’ introduces the main character (“I am so lost! / I am lost inside”), and the relationship tentatively begins by track four, ‘She Got a Wiggle’, a better, more subtle song than its title suggests. Beyond that there is a dip, as duets between Rowland and fictional squeeze Madeline Hyland (‘I’m Always Going to Love You’, ‘Incapable of Love’) fall flat, partly be-cause of a restrictive lyrical concreteness and partly because of a lack of chemistry. The songs have the comfortable, languourous feel of ’70s soul, but the arrangements lack the drama and sheer force of personality of peak Dexys.
Then, though, the album concludes with a brace of the finest songs we will hear this year. ‘Free’ reframes a lifetime of doomed relationships as a choice, an expression of intransigent untameability: “At first I didn’t know how I would be / Without somebody loving me / Would I be lost inside / But now… I’m better off alone”. Pete Williams scolds in counterpoint “If you don’t marry you will be lonely / All good men raise a family,” but Rowland is having none of it. “Some of them they don’t seem so happy / They tolerate misery / And that is not for me,” he retorts, reasoning “Why would I want to buy a book when I can join the library?” Whatever doubts you might have about Rowland’s rationalising here, the exuberant defiance is irresistible, and the band is thumping, Searching For The Young Soul Rebels-style.
Plus, whatever doubts you might have, Rowland has beaten you to them. On the desperately touching closer, ‘It’s OK, John Joe’, he self-laceratingly recounts his failures to relate to people. He’s not easy on himself: “I know about controlling people / I know about using people until I’m tired of them… and I know about getting someone to love me as a challenge / Then not wanting them when I have them”.
‘It’s OK John Joe’ seems to be intended as a reassurance to someone worrying about Rowland (“It’s OK, John Joe / It don’t matter if I’m alone”), but it’s not always reassuring. “I try to find some peace / But at best it’s only fleeting / I can’t last much longer like this like this,” he despairs, before – like the Cavalry – a reprise of ‘Free’ rides back in, in all its dauntless feckless glory. The message: no, really, it’s OK. There’s hope elsewhere too: “I’m only learning, just learning to operate in this world,” he says, “I’m gonna do it Johnny / I’m moving towards that thing”. It’s not over; he’s still growing, still searching, still burning. More luck to him.