A Joyful Thing: Whipping Boy Feature, Hot Press, 2006

This was one of my final two pieces for Hot Press after writing for them from 1993 to 2005 [I’ve been back just the once since]. This was for the Hot Press Annual at the end of 2005, beginning of 2006. I had been lucky enough to get the Whipping Boy cover story when Heartworm came out in 1995 – I’m still not sure why I got that gig but someone with more gravitas must have been unavailable – and this was a reunion for their reunion ten years later.

In October of 1995, Gerry McGovern ended his Hot Press review of the then-forthcoming Whipping Boy record with a simple, striking statement: “Heartworm is one of the best albums I’ve ever heard”.

Now rock writing is no stranger to hyperbole, but not here. Not even the slow, painful, implosion of the band over the following five years could deny Heartworm its place in the pantheon, and no-one reading this needs to be told: last year saw the hotpress.com membership vote it the seventh best Irish album of all time. Meanwhile, the newer wave of Irish bands, most publicly The Thrills, pay homage whenever possible. Whipping Boy have, on the strength of an impossibly great album and a disappearing act, become mythical.

Paul Page and Fergal McKee sit across from me, on the eve of their madly anticipated Cork, Dublin and Waterford reunion shows. We’re talking about Heartworm’s poll position, and they are both proud – “Heartworm could have been just another album by a band who were nearly the next big thing, and the album was then forgotten about; the history of Irish rock music is littered with that,” says Paul – and in two minds.

“It just keeps on getting in the way, you know, of other music,” says Fergal, who released a solo debut song, ‘What You Wanna Start’, on MP3 in February 2005. “The whole Whipping Boy thing – will it ever fuck off, you wonder,” he says. “Now, it’s Fergal McKee, you know what I mean, it’s not Whipping Boy. Whipping Boy is another thing. That’s what I thought at the time, you know. But what’s come out of it is kind of interesting,” he continues. “To be able to come back, and be able to play again. You do feel very humbled by it, or feel overwhelmed by it. You don’t expect that, so, it’s a joyful thing.”

Joy is a word you might not have associated with the Whipping Boy story until very recently. They split up in 1998, and in 2000 released Whipping Boy, a largely unheard album so titled because, by then, the band members could not speak civilly for long enough to come up with anything else. It was the worst sort of Let It Be nightmare.

Arguably, the nadir came in 2000 when Fergal and Colm Hassett booked a show in Cork using the Whipping Boy name, although Myles McDonnell and Paul Page were not involved. When asked, at the time, about his relationship with his ex-bandmate, Paul replied: “I have nothing to say about Fergal”. They did not speak for five years.

“The band as an entity had stopped communicating before that,” says Paul. “We recorded the third album, and at that stage, getting over the finish line with it was a major achievement. All semblance of normal band life had broken down. And I suppose, maybe it’s a bit like a marriage where the couple are heading for a divorce, and they think, maybe another child will keep them together. Maybe we thought going in to record that album, if we get through this album, we’ll stay together. It’ll do something for us. The reality was, the day we finished recording that album was the last day we spoke to each other.”

Then that was it, until, on the tenth anniversary of their finest hour, they made the decision to reform. Paul takes it up.

“Well, it wasn’t anything to do with the fact it was ten years. It was a bit of a coincidence. But, you know, we spent a long time totally adamant that we would never get back together. Then, as time goes by, you realise that you’re really only denying yourself something that you want to do. And it was just silly stuff that prevented it. This year it just seemed that everyone had softened in their attitudes. It was the right time.”

Paul is eloquent on the gap in your life that breaking up your band leaves. “It really hit me hard. It’s only when I look back on it now I can see what an impact it had on my life, even outside of music. I just wanted to stop. I stopped playing music for a long time. I hated going to gigs. When I went to gigs, all it did was remind me of the good days I had with Whipping Boy. I’d be there, and I’d be burning with envy. The few gigs I went to, I inevitably came away from them feeling depressed. The better the gig, the more depressed I felt.” Fergal is pragmatic about what you do with the leftover creative energy: “You join a trade union! You take on management,” he laughs. “You use it in another way. You cause shit for the people who cause shit for you.”

But still: the history of reunions in rock is woeful. Bands return, make repeated threats to do the right thing and record, and play tour after tired tour of 15-year old songs. (I’m thinking of The Pixies. Make it stop!) When Whipping Boy come back, will there be new work?
Fergal gets in first. “Well we can’t really say that for certain, can we? As such, yet.”

“No,” says Paul. “When we got together, there was no plan really beyond playing these few gigs. I think we’d all like to think that Whipping Boy could write and record a new record. If I didn’t think, at the time that we were asked, that there was that glimmer of hope, I probably wouldn’t have been as interested. Because I don’t really get the whole reunion thing, generally. Many of the bands that I’ve seen reunite have been very disappointing. House Of Love – really bad. I saw The Stranglers a few years ago, but they had a different singer. I think there has to be some vitality and point to a band’s existence. Just getting back to play three gigs, it has a nostalgia value, and maybe on a very selfish and personal level, that you want to get out there and play together again. I’d like to think we’d record. But come January, after the gigs, if we don’t feel a spark, we probably won’t do anything again.”

And that’s got to be the spark between the four of you. You’re going to get encouraged – the Olympia is going to erupt whatever you do.

Fergal nods. “We know in our own hearts and our own minds what works. There’s no point in trying to do something just for the sake of it. The most important thing is to come back, say hello and say goodbye, at these gigs, you know, and then see what happens. We can’t plan further ahead than that. We’ve all got lives, other dependent lives, and all that. And especially if we come back and do another Whipping Boy album, it has to be good for ourselves. There’s no point in us coming back just to make a few bob. We’re not going to do a fuckin’ – I won’t say an Aslan…”

You can say “an Aslan” if you like.

“I wouldn’t like to become a Devlins-type band, you know what I mean?”

Explain that?

“They’re an atrocious fucking band,” laughs Fergal. “At least Aslan have a bit of passion, you know? And a bit of belief in what they do. There’s no point in coming back just for the sake of coming back. It’s a musical journey. Where that stops, no-one knows. You can’t plan these things out, if you start planning things it all gets ruined. The karma goes.

“So you just take it step by step. That’s the way it should be. The magic will keep on going forward, anyway. That’s the whole point. Ideally, there’s lots of things I’d like to bring, and there’s lots of things that Paul would like to bring. If the four of us get that energy together again, then it’ll probably all come true. I can’t be selfish and say I’d love to lead a rebellion, or whatever, you know what I mean…”

Which you might have been guilty of in the past…

“Yeah,” smiles Fergal. “But let’s make music: that’s basically it. See what happens after that. Although I do think it’ll be nice when we’re auld boys, to be up on the stage at 66. Meet you in 30 years’ time. Once every 10 years’ll be enough.”

Keith Cullen & The Separate, State, 2012.

Keith Cullen was the founder and head of Setanta Records for an often glorious couple of decades before he called time on the label in 2012. The final release was Orchestral Variations V.1, a covers album by with some really beautiful stuff on it, like Ed Harcourt’s ‘Something To Believe In’ and Mark Lanegan’s ‘Close To Me’, which is my favourite Lanegan moment outside of Whiskey for the Holy Ghost. Fiona Brice’s arranging work on this record was incredible. Anyway, Setanta were a big part of my life ever since I Am The Greatest and it was great to connect with Keith Cullen. I’ve posted my contemporaneous review of the album here too. It is poignant to recall that I fact-checked this piece with the late Seán Hughes.

Underdogs are the best: Keith Cullen Interview

Friday 2nd July saw the release of Orchestral Variations V.01, an album by a collective called The Separate. The album features covers, arranged by Fiona Brice and Rob Kirwan, of a dozen of key songs in Keith Cullen’s life, sung by the likes of Mark Lanegan, Martha Wainright and Ed Harcourt. Cullen, for those of you who were not into spiky independent pop in the 90s, is the founder and owner of Setanta Records, which was a lifeline for much of that decade. Setanta has been quiet for the last decade or so but has kept going, until now. This is definitively its last release; there won’t be an Orchestral Variations V.02.

Through Setanta, Keith Cullen midwifed brilliant albums by the likes of A House, Brian, Into Paradise, The Harvest Ministers, and Richard Hawley, while rejuvenating  Edwyn Collins and even Evan Dando. Setanta brought The Magnetic Fields to Ireland and the UK before it was profitable or popular; actually, by the time they were profitable and popular, Setanta had let them go. Cullen was also to a large extent responsible for the career of The Divine Comedy, signing them in 1991 and putting out everything as far as Fin de Siècle. Sean Hughes once wrote a poem in which he thanked Cullen for cycling up a high street with the master tapes of Promenade in the basket of his bike. (Details of this poem are sketchy, and I’m paraphrasing, but Hughes, asked last week via Twitter if he had written a poem called ‘Thank You Keith Cullen’, replied, “Gosh, I believe I did”.)

On the occasion of their Setanta’s ever album, State thought it would be a good idea to mark the passing of a milestone in Irish music with the man behind some of the finest records in recent Irish music history, Keith Cullen.

State: The official end of Setanta Records is a poignant moment for a particular generation of music lovers in Ireland and beyond. As a friend of mine said “We all have at least one of those records”, and some of us have 20 of them. But these events sometimes mean more, sentimentally, to people not so close to them – is the last Setanta release a poignant, even sad, moment for you?

Keith Cullen: I’ve been pretty inactive as a record label for the last few years, so I guess not really. Having said that, I know there was a time when I felt over it all, and working with Josh Ritter and the Chalets kept me going for a while. Josh is one of the nicest people to deal with and the Chalets were such a real band, dynamically. It’s not sad really. It’s the past. Being reminded of what you did is nice, but I forget bits of films I love within 24 hours of watching them so I can’t say there is a part of my mind stuck in a nostalgia trip.

What inspired you to set up Setanta in the first place in the Eighties? Was there a particular aesthetic or ethic? Were there other labels that you looked to? 

Rough Trade was the only UK record label that signed Irish artists. The best talent comes from the back arse of nowhere, and Ireland filled that criterion in every way in those pre Ryanair / Magners / Father Ted years. Putting Irish music that was not bad stadium rock on the map in the UK was the intention. It worked to a degree, maybe it opened some doors.

Am I right in remembering a Setanta motto “None of your indie tat”?

‘None of your cheap indie tat’ was on a Divine Comedy ad we put in the NME. Most indie music was all rough around the edges then; there was nothing classy going on. At least that was my perception!

Was there a sense then in which Setanta was a reaction to other music going on in Ireland or made by Irish people at the time? I’m thinking of the morass of post-U2 stuff that Setanta could hardly have been further from.

I hated the attention and big deals that bands like Cactus World News, Blue In Heaven and An Emotional Fish got, but there was probably a big dose of jealousy going on there too! Most major label signings are made by muppets who are looking for the next big thing. I had a policy of only signing artists that nobody else was interested in, no point chasing after the Emperor’s new clothes. In a way, those bands were only doing what was expected of them. Having said that, Celtic (Irish and Scottish) artists tend to be less insular than English ones. They don’t shy away from anthemic choruses, it’s easier for Americans to like them and if the Yanks like it who gives a monkeys about Blighty?

One of my abiding memories of the Setanta era comes is that glorious, hilarious, unlikely moment in the summer of 1996, when the Divine Comedy went on to Top of the Tops in white suits to play Something for the Weekend. You must have a list of such moments when you stood back and said – Wow.

Em, I honestly don’t remember that! TV goes over my head, I didn’t see the video for ‘A Girl Like You’ until a few years after it was released. I hate videos. The fact that The Clash refused to go on Top of the Pops was a big deal to me. In this present fame hungry climate people would wonder why anyone would say no to something like that; sounds like a good reason to give up the old dayjob to me.

You’ve written about not wanting to be the old guy at the back of the gig going on about some new act or trying to keep up, and this is a feeling everyone fortyish and up knows well. Has your taste changed?

Someone asked Edwyn Collins what music I liked and he said ‘anything without a beat’ which is pretty apt. I’ve always liked sad stuff, now I just like the sad stuff to be slower, so I don’t miss anything.

If it’s not too much like choosing between your children, are there Setanta records you are particularly proud of?

Ever the obscurist, I still think A Feeling Mission by the Harvest Ministers is a great album, as is Stooping to Fit by Catchers. Having said that, I listened to I Am the Greatest by A House last week for the first time in years and it still sounds great.

What exactly did Séan Hughes say about you in that poem? I recall he said something about you cycling up Kilburn High St with the master tapes of Promenade in the basket of your bike.

Did he? I had no idea he mentioned me in a poem. I do remember he wrote something in the Independent about me. We’ve met a bunch of times, he seems like a nice guy, but I never knew when he was joking because I didn’t have a TV, I was unaware of his humour, I don’t get most comedians.

Can you say a little about late-period Setanta? There were wonderful moments there like Richard Hawley’s Late Night Final and Evan Dando’s Baby I’m Bored.

Evan Dando was very funny but off the wall and high maintenance. He was friends with Marlon Richards. He told me he liked hanging out with Marlon because Evan was the only person Marlon’s dad (Keith Richards) didn’t approve his son hanging around with.

It’s great to see Richard Hawley doing well. It was hard getting things started though. Mojo didn’t want to review his albums because they said ‘we don’t need another Roy Orbison’. I got a call from The Word Magazine two years ago, asking me for £500 so they could put a track from Lowedges on their ‘Best of the Noughties’ cover mount CD. I told them to fuck off. Again, they didn’t review it at the time. NME ran a ‘classic albums’ review of Edwyn Collins Gorgeous George album a few years ago, another album nobody cared about until ‘A Girl Like You’ was a hit. Do I sound bitter?!

And post-label, what you are doing now? I know you published a novel (2009’s God Save The Village Green).

I’m writing a second novel, which is… going. I’m also selling collectable books online, which makes more of a living than I made while running the label!

I was absolutely blown away by Ed Harcourt’s version of ‘Something to Believe In’ by The Ramones on the Separate album. To be the opening track on that album suggests that ‘Something to Believe In’ is a big song for you. What does the song mean to you, and about The Ramones?

That was the track that made me want to make the album. The lyrics are great, but they are killed by the 80’s production of the Ramones version, and it’s not a very Ramones-y song. Neil Hannon covered it at my suggestion years ago. The Ramones? They’re underdogs. Underdogs are the best!

The Separate – Orchestral Variations V1 (Setanta).
As noted in a Keith Cullen interview elsewhere in StateOrchestral Variations V.1 is the final release on Setanta Records, marking its transition from a dormant label (its last release, bar a novel, was in 2006) to an extinct one. This is really it; there won’t be a V.2.
Orchestral Variations V.1, released to formally mark Setanta’s demise, is a collection of songs selected by Cullen, arranged for chamber strings, and sung by a range of impressive names. Cullen picked the songs, paid for the album, and is putting it out. It’s been called a vanity project, and it is, but, then: isn’t all art?
And actually, it works really well. The songs selected go from unexpectedly populist choices (Patrick Wolf’s ‘Old Town’, Mark Lanegan’s ‘Close to Me’, Martha Wainwright’s ‘Stories for Boys’) to the reassuringly idiosyncratic, like ‘Big Sky’ from the Kinks’ 1968 Village Green Preservation Society, or OMD’s taut, puzzling ‘Souvenir’.
Ed Harcourt takes on The Ramones, but does so not through ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ but via the obscure ‘Something to Believe In’: “I wish I was someone else / I’m confused, I’m afraid, I hate the loneliness”, it begins, opening the album. Harcourt, with producer Rob Kirwan and arranger Fiona Brice, does an exquisite job of laying bare the song’s crippling melancholy, not neglecting the hope: “With your love”, it goes on, “I know with all my heart I can win”. It’s a stunning performance.
As is Mark Lanegan’s take on The Cure’s ‘Close to Me’. Covers of hit songs are tough to get right, because each listener has a million associations with the song already; if the cover is too close a copy, like Paul Noonan’s ‘Once in a Lifetime’, nothing is added and the cover quickly becomes pointless. Lanegan, however, utterly reimagines ‘Close to Me’, de- and re-constructing it as something barely recognisable. The Cure’s song was always a classic, but Lanegan’s slowed-down, dissonant version finds layers of depth and foreboding in the song that I doubt Robert Smith knew he put there.
This, here, is how you make a song your own, and it’s an expression of unrestrained but cultivated creativity befitting the final release on a label that is already much missed.
Niall Crumlish 4/5

The Harvest Ministers: You Do My World The World of Good

This is a piece I published in State about six years ago. I love The Harvest Ministers and their release of a retrospective was a big event. Will is a fascinating guy, always creating. This is the first and probably last time I’ve referenced golf in a music piece and I specifically asked Phil in State to leave the Larry Mize bit in, for Will and for Michael O’Hara, and he kindly did, against his better judgment.

Will Merriman formed The Harvest Ministers in 1987, which many people remember as the year of The Joshua Tree or the year Larry Mize jammily won The Masters. It is a long time for a band to have been around, and about time for an anthology – so here we are.

You Can See Everything From Here draws on all five of The Harvest Ministers’ albums, from 1993’s Little Dark Mansion to 2010’s Strange Love Letter, and from their glistening early 7” singles, ‘Six O’Clock Is Rosary’, ‘You Do My World The World Of Good’, and ‘If It Kills Me And It Will’.

During a ridiculous run of form in the 1990s, the Ministers were one of those bands, like The Pixies or The Smiths the decade before them, so overburdened with great songs that they could leave masterpieces off albums. ‘Six O’Clock Is Rosary’ is utterly exquisite: a song so sparse and taut and elegant and lush with feeling that it would be the peak of almost any other band’s career.

The Ministers’ fanbase has never been huge and never half-hearted. You Can See Everything From Here features liner notes in the form of a mini-memoir by Michael O’Hara, who introduced me to the Ministers through his infectious encomiums in Hot Press. He begins: “I don’t remember the first time I met the woman who was later to become my wife, but I remember the first time I saw The Harvest Ministers”. He’s in so much trouble with the missus that you know that he means it.

Michael was not alone in his ardour. You had to commit to The Ministers as much as they committed themselves, in their scrupulously honest, aching songs like ‘Dominique’, ‘A Drowning Man’, ‘Orbit’, and ‘I Hang From A Great Big Oak’, which sounds like you’d imagine it sounds.

As the years have flown in, Merriman has added to his writing a lightness in tone that was not always obvious early on; but he has retained a vulnerability, an openness to the experience of longing, that catches your breath. When you get to my age everyday life takes over and you can get a little shut off from your emotions. The Harvest Ministers songs that populate You Can See Everything From Here open you back up. They reconnect you with emotions that you ignore, or don’t have any time for, but that you have to feel to stay healthy; to stay human. If that’s all I ever got from art, it would be enough.

State: How did The Harvest Ministers initially get together?

Will Merriman: I started the band with a friend of mine, David Duffy, who was the singer. He also played a beautiful harmonica and ‘Can’t Go It Alone’, featuring his playing, appears on the EP ‘If It Kills Me And It Will’, with Gerardette Bailey on lead vocal.

We put an ad in Hot Press (probably) and recruited Padraig McCaul [now a brilliant, successful painter – NC] on saxophone duties. Later discovering that Padraig was a shark and could play almost every instrument under the sun.

I remember the first demos we did with Shea Fitzgerald out in the Music Mint in Glasthule and the innocent pleasure of taking the Dart back into town with recorded tape in hand, proud as a boy who’d just picked grapes all day. Still as a songwriter one is always consumed by the next song and how to write it. I don’t dwell too long on what’s gone before. Never have, never will.

You’re not one for dwelling. Yet here we are with a retrospective! So could I ask you to dwell a little – or at least to draw a line between what’s gone before and where you are now. Do you have a sense of how you have changed, or stayed the same, as a songwriter?

You mentioned ‘I Hang From A Great Big Oak’. Well that’s probably one of the rawest songs I’ve ever written and a somewhat dramatic one too, particularly when experienced in a live situation. ‘Who is this guy singing about hanging from a great big oak, is he for real? But I like that unnerving of an audience, though you have to be careful not to over do it – nobody wants to be reminded too forcefully about how bad things can be. Light and shade, very important.

Strange Love Letter contains a lot of raw emotion. ‘So You Finally Struck Oil’ [“So you finally struck oil / Got your hands on a big pile / All that money that won’t be mine / I bet you’re really proud”] is like someone dreaming of one day maybe having the opportunity to stick two fingers up against the world, yet does the person involved really think it’s going to happen? We’re all full of day dreams, it’s how we handle them that counts.

I’ve always considered songwriting as a craft, not in any in-depth technical way (which is fraught with over-analysis and musical cleverness), but in a basic sense of capturing the song as it is played and sung by the singer – like all the old blues singers or Elvis’s Sun Sessions. You’ve written a song, play it, and while you’re playing it, we’ll record it. Repeat this process till you have enough for an album, and when you have 30 – 40 (or more), we’ll choose 13 or whatever to release. This of course is easier said than done, and writing words and music is not easy and can take any number of years before you are satisfied with the work you have done.

I’m curious what your take is on the connection is that people make with your music. Or another way of asking that is: What do you look for in the art and music that you love?

I’m not sure it’s a question of looking for something in art and music. I think someone fundamentally feels a connection with the piece of music / song they are listening to and it is the same with art, which can soothe, make you laugh, cry and reflect on your very existence.

I was fortunate enough to be standing in front of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ recently and despite the throng of people milling around, I felt myself being transported to an inner place of peace and solitude – not a physical space but a space where one could easily discard as meaningless, the every day irritations which fill most of our lives. Literature has this power too, and books like Infinite Jest and The Old Man And The Sea, though two vastly different styles, are examples.

I think that is why I had such a great time writing the songs for Padraig McCaul’s exhibition ‘The Light of Which I Speak’. There was a connection between the landscape Padraig was painting and the characters within the music, illustrating how a songwriter’s imagination is or should be where everything starts and finishes.

So maybe the people who like our music are drawn in by some of these sentiments. They are the same sentiments I feel when I listen to music.

Chuck Berry never fails to make me laugh. Take ‘Nadine’ – ‘I got on a city bus and found a vacant seat, thought I saw my future bride walking down the street’. You’re immediately swept up in the tale; pure brilliance.The flip side of that is Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’, in terms of colour, for me this is a deep dark blue, an equally engaging brilliant song – you’ve got music coming out from the inside with no frills attached. People like that. I like that.

You might say something about what’s next – where you go from here, given that the anthology is an opportunity to acknowledge the past and move forward.

The anthology will be followed by our next studio album. Work on this is at an advanced stage and I would hope this new collection of songs will be out some time early next year. This is why we wanted to precede this record by the anthology as the idea was to give people who have never heard our music a chance to be introduced to the band.

My mind has already wandered to the album after. A songwriter is constantly moving on, never settling for a second, and the driving force behind all of this remains the imagination.

You Can See Everything From Here is out now http://theharvestministers.bandcamp.com/

Nine Notes on Shortly After Takeoff by BC Camplight

One. My core taste in music has not changed all that much in thirty-odd years. My range has expanded but I continue to be drawn to pained, melancholy, or even devastated songs sung in the first person that have a ring of autobiographical authenticity about them. Dramatic songs, often but not necessarily funny. ‘You Don’t Have To’ by John Grant, ‘I’ve Been A Mess’ by American Music Club, ‘When The Family Flies In’ by Julia Jacklin, ‘Funeral’ by Phoebe Bridgers, and ‘I Want To Be In The Mafia’ by BC Camplight. That kind of thing. I’m not thrilled about this; I would like to have evolved a more sophisticated aesthetic. I have never wanted to be the guy applauding Mark Eitzel in ‘Gratitude Walks’, in which the singer is “drunk on the kind of applause that gets louder the lower you sink”. But I’ve known that song and been aware of this problem since 1993 and I’m still that guy, give or take. I worry that enjoying the expression of an artist’s pain – and it is enjoyment, among other things – is sadistic, voyeuristic, and/or parasitic. (I suppose if I’m buying the albums, it’s symbiotic.) I do a fair bit of rationalising about this.

Two. I settled in to Shortly After Takeoff when I decided to treat the first-person protagonist of the songs, BC Camplight, as a heightened, fictionalised version of Brian Christinzio. It helped me to think of him like Larry David in Curb, or Louie in Louie, or Steve Coogan in The Trip, or Patrick Melrose in Edward St Aubyn’s books. That way you can inhabit the songs completely and worry about the protagonist less. It’s also just more accurate. Larry isn’t Larry all the time, and BC Camplight is not BC Camplight. That would be exhausting.

Three. In 1996 in an interview for Hot Press in a bar beside Liverpool St Station, I asked Stephin Merritt about depression and, basically, if he was OK, beause of the depressive and suicidal content in the Magnetic Fields’ album Get Lost (“Time provides the rope / But love will tie the slipknot / And I will be the chair you kick away”). Stephin Merritt scolded me, saying you should not confuse the artist with the art and “When I listen to Abba songs I don’t want to know about Bjorn Ulvaeus’s life”. So that was me told and the interview didn’t go great and I gave out to myself for my artlessness. And it was a useful lesson that I never forgot, and he was right. Then in 2017, he released 50 Song Memoir, with one song to sum up each year of his life. The 1996 entry was ‘I’m Sad’.

Four. It is hard when you are a psychiatrist to hear songs about emotional suffering without thinking you should be helping somehow. That is a lot of songs and is probably part of the reason I’ve migrated towards music without words in the last ten years.

Five. I was reminded listening to ‘Back To Work’ of the powerful piece by Anna Borges in The Outline a year ago called ‘I Am Not Always Very Attached To Being Alive’. This piece is worth a read for anyone who would like to better understand what is like to live with suicidal feelings and self-harm.

Six. The final verse of ‘I Want To Be In The Mafia’, almost a coda, is the world’s quietest, gentlest slap in the face. The lines are “I’m beginning to give up / There’s nothing in my cup / I’m hoping it’s a phase / I’m longing for the days / In the Mafia”. In a song inspired by cinema, it is the equivalent of the camera in Goodfellas pulling back from Ray Liotta to show the set empty behind him; the funny guy scene but with no-one else in the bar.

Seven. The description of psychosis in the second verse of ‘Back To Work’ is stark and the understated jocular delivery is a masterpiece of deflection. The verse, in a song that soundscapes the gruelling grind of relapsing depression, describes delusions of guilt of an extreme variety. He sings “I know the Devil and his wife Denise / They worship me / I’m their kind of guy / I bring them peace.” I had to read these lyrics; you can’t hear them that well and I wonder if BC Camplight wanted to hide this verse in plain view. When your depressive psychosis is such that the Devil is worshipping you, it’s serious. Depressive religious delusions are some of the most harrowing existential experiences a person can have. Maybe the only way to capture the gravity of this in a song is by ironic contrast, the skipping sparkling acoustic guitars and the device of the wife Denise drawing attention away from, and illuminating, the enormity at hand.

Eight. The appearance of BC Camplight’s mum in ‘Back To Work’ makes me think of the other characters in the songs and their perspectives. His mum, who comes across in this song as harsh, and whose perspective we don’t hear. The friend* who is with him in ‘Arm Around Your Sadness’ when the delivery they don’t remember ordering arrives (“some vegetable peeler thing”). The chemist in the same song who no doubt patiently listens to the protagonist’s bullshit (“I made up some lie / That I require no prescription / Because I’m American”). The richness of these songs after the first few listens partly comes from the cast of characters, the world that is created, which is not a vast world, but it is human-sized. And I think of BC Camplight’s Dad, Angelo, whose death is the ground zero of these songs, and the heart-emptying earthquake of filial grief for which you can never be prepared.

Nine. I still use songs like BC Camplight’s to remind me to try to be a better human and to continue to teach me how to do it. It’s crazy that I still rely on songs like this. I’m not far off fifty years old. I meet a lot of people and I’ve had a lot of experiences. I still need reminders? I guess you drift towards being better, then drift away, and back and forth it goes, and music guides. It’s not even that I use songs deliberately – they do it themselves. I know that this week, I listened to ‘Cemetery Lifestyle’ and thought of a person whose escapades could add verses to that song, and I reflected in the light of the song on my own feelings towards that person. My irritation and reluctance to locate the appropriate compassion. My high-horse wish to blame and abdicate. And the song reminded me: take it easy man. If you can feel warmly towards BC Camplight waking up in a stranger’s banana suit in a Nando’s car park after God knows what, you can feel warmly towards this real person. It helped. I need this.

*On 14th May, the day after posting this, I realised who the “friend” is, and that late-dawning realisation drew a gasp, and the song changed and deepened. I do like when that happens.