In 2003, shortly before he died, the activist and critic Edward Said published On Late Style, an examination of the late works of towering figures in the arts, like Beethoven, Benjamin Britten, and the mercurial genius pianist Glenn Gould. Said was interested in commonalities between the late works of artists across disciplines: how did they differ from the work that makes a young, voraciously hungry artist’s name?
Late style is not something that pop music has done well. What band has gotten better as its members have gotten older? Which artists have done their best work beyond 40, or even 30? There are decent bands who have peaked before their first single came out. (I’m thinking of Suede and Magazine, but I’m sure 21st century examples exist.) Pop music has always been, or has appeared to be, about young hunger and electric inspiration rather than age-acquired craft. It’s not just a question of work getting better, or worse, with time. On Late Style would ask: name a pop artist who has made a genuine, half-successful attempt to adapt his or her means of expression as he or she has gotten older, the better to express the changing realities of life. They are few. But by now it may be obvious that I’m going to make a case for Couse.
I’m conscious of the absurdity of (A) comparing Dave Couse to Beethoven and (B) writing about the late-life artistic achievement of a man in his mid-forties. But, in reverse order, (B) the point is not actual advancing years as much as it is the recognition that an evolving understanding of the world demands an evolution in expression and (A) I have just spent two weeks with Alonewalk and it is such a thrilling and mysterious and moving record that, for now, the comparison stands.
The first question might be: what’s different? And with the opening song, ‘Black and White’, patterns emerge. First there is the stately pace, sometimes martial, which persists almost through the entire album. There is an enjoyable tinkering with song structure. The melody is memorable and piano-led; Couse learned to play after buying his first piano at 40, and listens, you might think, to a lot of John Cale. Fergal Bunbury provides interlocking arpeggiate guitar lines. The vocal is dominated by Couse’s falsetto. And Couse sings very few words. These songs are not ‘Small Talk’. Track two, ‘Dark Blue’, develops that theme. The entire lyric: “As dark blue invades you / And this life, this life escapes you / Let my love surround you / As this life becomes you / If dark blue proceeds to take over you / I beseech you / Let my love surround you / As this life becomes you / See through / Dark blue”. That’s it; it’s not much more than a haiku. For someone whose verbosity is the stuff of legend, it’s a big move. It allows the songs the space to breathe.
In ‘Don’t Say a Word’, and most of the time, Couse’s falsetto really works. There’s a line at the end of the second verse: “Love, love’s all there is / You know I’d trade places with you in a heartbeat”; Couse exhales the word ‘heartbeat’ with an extraordinary intimacy. Elsewhere, he sings “Now / Now’s not the time / I know what you’re here for / But it’s not mine to give”. No more is explained. What has happened? What’s not his to give? Who knows? In Alonewalk, Couse has the confidence to leave gaps. I think this is a recognition that his audience, which is in all likelihood aging with him, doesn’t need to be beaten over the head with literal lyrical meaning. We bring ourselves to the songs and we fill in the blanks with our own experiences. That could be wrong, but it’s what I’m doing regardless.
On Alonewalk, Couse’s falsetto replaces what another reviewer has called his “trademark nasal sneer”. If this is the perception of Couse’s normal voice, then I’m not surprised he ran as far away from it as he could. It was never my perception of his voice, though, and I doubt that a generation of Irish indie fans would have been as upset as they were at A House’s legendary last Olympia show if a sneer was all we were saying goodbye to. Of course, Couse does caustic. But his non-falsetto voice has huge, cracked character – think of ‘My Heart Bleeds’, ‘The Comedy Is Over’, ‘Thirteen Wonderful Songs’, ‘As The Colours’, or, most obviously, ‘When I First Saw You’. (Jesus, how many times did I play that song, over and over again.)
There are times when his falsetto falters, like ‘Good Friday’, a mostly magnificent duet with Cathal Coughlan where he overstretches it. At moments like that I wish he would trust his normal register. These are songs that would fit neatly on a Nick Cave album (specifically, The Good Son); Couse could use and is entitled to have Cave’s vocal confidence. Falsetto can be a shortcut to excessively signposted emotion, and should be used sparingly, like whiskey in your morning cup of tea.
‘Habitual’ is the closest we come to an old-school Couse stomper. There’s a glistening glockenspiel riff and a curiously self-confident lyric (“One of these fine days I’m gonna be king / I’m gonna change the world I live in… And I still hold on so tightly to the beliefs that I’ve held on to all my life”). It’s a measure of how far from normal Couse service this is that a cocky lyric is worth remarking on, but it’s curious because it’s so out of keeping with the uncertain air of the rest of the songs. That uncertainty – acknowledging and accepting that you don’t know as much as you once thought you did – has the ring of truth when expressed by a man in middle age. This is no longer ‘I Am The Greatest’, half-ironic as even that was.
Even in the following song, the lovely ‘What Will Become of Us’, Couse challenges his earlier belief-system certainty, asking: “Are we living, or trapped in time? / Are we big enough to change our minds?” Not that we want Couse to be consistent – consistency is a characteristic of glue or dough, not songwriters – and any qualms about ‘Habitual’ are erased by the warm, sharp and, well, nostalgic coda, the surprise of which, for A House lovers, I won’t ruin. ‘What Will Become of Us’ is another deftly arranged and touching piece, Couse harmonising with himself and Rike Soeller’s empathetic cello. It is really, really hard to get the tune out of your head.
‘All Tomorrows’ and ‘Time’ end things adroitly. The ten-minute ‘Time’ almost attains the status of an epic, as Couse runs through the ravages of time, almost in the manner of a list song. “Time / Time can break your heart… Time is a brutal thing / Time changes everything … Time will take us / Time will break us”. But like all of Alonewalk it’s not a song that feels sorry for itself. Halfway through the song come two minutes of birdsong, then a solo piano, simple and strong. And that’s it.
If there is a pattern to be discerned from Dave Couse’s varied and storied career, it is that he does his best work when there are no expectations; when he’s completely free. A House recorded I Want Too Much – twenty years ago! – when they knew they were going to be dropped, so they just went for it on the beach in Inishbofin. His least satisfying records have emerged when either a major label or multiple producers or himself have been keeping a commercial eye. Couse recorded this one in his own house, in his own time, with his friends, and it shows. I hope that the praise Alonewalk is getting will not stymie him next time out. And I hope that I won’t jinx Couse by suggesting that he has found a voice that will serve him for years ahead, and he could be at the cusp of a great late career.
But if I’m right in my interpretation of Edward Said, this is unjinxable. The New York Times review of On Late Style put it well: “What artist does not yearn, some day, to possess a “late style”? A late style would reflect a life of learning, the wisdom that comes from experience, the sadness that comes from wisdom and a mastery of craft that has nothing left to prove.” Nothing left to prove? That sounds like our man.