Some things just don’t go quite the way they’re planned. For instance, I was supposed to be over the moon and in love with U2’s latest album, No Line on the Horizon. While I’m not as down on it as I was when I heard the first single, “Get On Your Boots,” the thing got five perfunctory plays and has been shoved back into the rack ever since. Meanwhile, a friend slips me a USB flash drive and tells me (commands, more like) to listen to the album Moon Rock by Paul Steel. I know not of this Steel person, and the album cover seems to foreshadow something really, really cheeky. I’m not in the mood for cheeky lately, so the plan was to give the thing a run-through, give my friend the necessary thank-you’s and advise him I’m just not into albums that have Nintendo-like graphics for cover art (this means you, Architecture in Helsinki.)
Two weeks later and someone hasn’t gotten their flash drive back.
Moon Rock (2007) is the most addictive album I’ve heard in years, the picture of power-pop primacy, and it’s already a couple years old. Worse, it has not migrated officially from Steel’s native England yet, so the good folks at Not Lame Records are having a hell of a time keeping their imports in stock (you can buy it at Amazon.com as well.) It’s very much a case that as soon as like-minded listeners hear the recording, they’re prone to want to own it, only to find the process will be needlessly difficult. The equivalent of musical jonesing owes much to Steel’s mastery of the sugar-sweet hook, the fine art of subversion as the lyrics to the songs aren’t necessarily as straightforward as the sound advertises them to be, and that even though this was recorded at home by a nineteen-year-old kid it has a massive sound on it.
To better illustrate that subversive quality, the album opens with the song “In a Coma,” wherein the protagonist has found and saved the woman of his dreams but, alas, he’s powerless to do anything about it because… wait for it… he’s in a coma. This could be one seriously morbid concept, so the fact that it’s carried off with the panache of an E.L.O./Knack mash-up and doesn’t wind up sounding horrid prepares the listener for one fun and strange ride. “Rust and Dust” is a piano-driven ballad that could have been taken straight from the Ben Folds Five’s debut album, except that the protagonist in this one is seriously obsessed with a former girlfriend. You don’t pick that up when, in the chorus, Steel sings “And God knows how I miss you and the times I could have kissed you,” but when he flips that line at the very end of the tune into, “I wish I never met you — you’ll be sorry when I get you,” you will get a cold-chill moment. I guarantee that.
Need more evidence of duplicity? How about the Beach Boys-ish “I Will Make You Disappear,” set to a doo-wop shuffle and a sing-along chorus that, scarily, goes, “Hey old-timer, don’t you fear / oh, I will make you disappear”? I’d like to think this is some super-meta concept where Steel gets everyone clapping and joining in, unaware of the dark underside of the tune because, as we’ve previously guessed, people just don’t bother to know lyrics that much. After all, this sound of music is notorious for being utterly fluffy and friendly lyrically. Having these catchy tunes tied to such misanthropy either makes for a cunningly cerebral exercise or is a strong indicator Paul Steel is someone you do not want to run into in dark alleyways.
Regardless, this album is ear candy from start to finish and so highly recommended, my friend may never get his flash drive back. Some things just don’t go as planned, I guess!