Oh the Money to be Made in the Enigma Game 19/12/08

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Scott Walker, Bill Fay and Nick Drake are often listed as the mystery men of British music, enigmatic and reclusive are descriptions that apply to all three. There are plenty of competitors for those titles today though, reclusive and enigmatic are labels artists increasingly cling to in an attempt to fetter a myth around themselves and increase record sales.

Nothing was more ridiculous earlier in the year than folk rock guitarist “Bon Ivor” grousing unendingly in interviews about how he fled to a log cabin in the woods and lived off deer meat for a month, all while recording his debut album. A great stunt, which conned a few innocent souls into thinking “this guys obviously tortured, a real thinker”. His next trip to the cabin, for the all but certain follow up album will no doubt be accompanied by an online video blog and live web cam of him crying into his deer meat and coming up with a few more generic ballads of loss and longing. The whole hearted bragging of his month long solitary existence was a gimmick, if it was not, he wouldn’t have mentioned it, he would have released the album to critical acclaim and let the music announce itself on its own merits, and then years down the line say “oh by the way that albums got a nice story to it”.

Then of course we have people like Ray Lamontagne, a guy who we’re told hasn’t cracked a smile for forty years. Except of late, on his increasingly regular trips to the bank, hand in hand with some very large bags of money, when he has apparently been spotted grinning moronically. He is of course painfully shy and doesn’t want to leave his hotel room for fear of bumping into other human beings. There is no problem with that of course. But you can’t help thinking about someone like Nick Drake who crafted some of the most beautiful songs in the pantheon of 20th century British music. He was so shy he couldn’t perform live concerts, Mr Lagmontaine has tour dates falling out of his ears. Drake barely saw any of his records sell in his lifetime, Lamontagne’s debut album sold half a million copies, yet he hasn’t cheered up just in case it blows his act. Drake certainly didn’t highlight his own misfortune at every opportunity, he had to much pride in himself and his music. Lamontagne seems to pick over his own problems in almost every interview he does.

Chamber-rock artist Bill Fay is even less known than Nick Drake, the three albums he released in the late 1960s and early 70s are lost classics which sold a handful of copies at the time. Alt-country group Wilco’s patronage has heightened his profile ever so slightly, but this doesn’t mean he has rushed into production, what would only be his fourth album in a lifetime, or announced a concert tour. No, his camouflage has remained in place, his hiding place undiscovered, there are only five known photographs of him in existence and his one live appearance in decades, with Wilco in a gigs encore, was never recorded on his stipulation and has not been replicated since. He has certainly not cultivated his mystery to inadvertently increase his fame, his reclusivness is unrelenting.

The ultimate McCavity of British music though is Scott Walker, who’s fame with the Walker Brothers in the 1960s matched that of the Beatles. He threw all this away for the sake of his insular introvert self and produced four string laden masterpieces in loneliness and despair. His massive young fan base immediately dropped him as they became enmeshed in songs about Ingmar Bergman films and references to Albert Camus, which of course as Walker explained with a wry smile: “they couldn’t dance to”.

Walker purposely shunned his own success to produce the kind of material he wanted to, with no explanations. He had early fame and asked by Muriel Grey on a bizarre appearance on The Tube in the 1980s if he would like it to return he said he desperately hoped it wouldn’t. His latest albums are chocked with extraordinary gothic weirdness, totally at odds with his early work. His change of paths comes with no self – psychoanalysis on his part of course.

Today’s thinly wrapped enigmas, the Lamontagnes and the Bon Ivors caveat their music with their tales of misfortune and years of turbulent melancholy and they use it as selling point over their craft itself. I’m not saying they have not lived through difficult times, but it is not something unique to them, other artists have to, but they’ve not breathed a word of it voluntarily. The real enigmas give us their work and then disappear to whence they came, leaving us to ponder the person behind the music and come to our own conclusions.

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