A continuing series exhuming, exploring and exaulting the “lost” treasures scattered in the sands of music history. Because it’s never too late.
Gregson & Collister – The Last Word
It’s unavoidable: No matter what a songwriter’s chosen mission is, at some point he/she is going to write a love song, that’s just the way it is. That’s why a record hard edged as London Calling ends with a boy/girly song like “Train In Vain.” Because not even the end of the world is a good enough reason pass on chatting up that bird who keeps smiling from the foot of the stage. Gotta have priorities.
Scattered among the artists writing love songs are a few, singular people who write songs about love, which seems the same a first glance, but under closer examination is totally different. Clive Gregson is one of these people. He was founding member and principal songwriter of Any Trouble, one of the second bunch of bands signed to Stiff Records, all of whom made the career-stunting mistake of Not Being Elvis Costello. Despite glowing write ups in the British music press, relentless touring, four albums and a stack of singles on two different labels [they switched to EMI in 1984], they were but a critics’ darling in the UK and non-existent in the US. Any Trouble broke up and Gregson split time between a solo career and a playing guitar in Richard Thompson’s band. One night Gregson walked into a folk club to find Christine Collister singing and recruited her as vocalist for his projects and Thompson’s band. before long Gregson and Collister were a romantic duo as well as a musical one, winning over UK critics and helping spark a British folk revival that’s still going strong. The combination of Gregson’s literate songwriting and Collister’s burnt-almonds-and-honey singing brought UK critics and fans alike to their knees.
The love of critics and hardcore folkies rarely adds up to commercial success. Like Any Trouble, Gregson and Collister were worshipped by those in the know and invisible to everybody else. After four albums in five years, the pair had had enough, musically as well as personally. Being true and honest artists, Gregson and Collister forged their greatest work in the burning house of their own intertwined lives. It’s easy to think Clive and Christine got the idea for The Last Word from watching Richard and Linda Thompson recount their own break up on the legendary Shoot Out the Lights, though it’s probably just a case of singer-songwriters being singer-songwriters. Released in 1992, The Last Word is the equal to the Thompsons’ album in every way that counts, and at times surpasses it.
Most acts would toss off a bit of fluff or some sort of rehash for their farewell effort: A live album, a “hits” compiation with a couple b-sides tossed in as a “bonus” – something simple and easy. Not these two. Even the cover is heavy: A purple tinged photograph of the pair, not smiling, not even looking at each other. Two people who could be any couple we know visibly having fallen out: Dejected, tired, drawn to each other even though they no longer know how to properly love or even like each other.
The music starts in the hues with “I Know Something” – a dark, spare landscape of rolling toms, ringing pianos and muted guitars that accuse and insuate while Christine wanders, hand in hand with her secrets, refusing to apologize [“I’ve played the starring role in a stranger’s dream”]. She’ll declare, even confess but not concede. She won’t waste our time trying to justify what she’s done [and wants to do again]…mostly because she’s not sorry. Should she be? The Last Word divides almost evenly between tales of “he said” and “she said” , and the constantly shifting point of view means we never get to comfortably take a side in the discussion.
“Here I go again” is Gregson’s first turn, and it’s another tune in the great English folk tradition of a jaunty warm, friendly tunes that tell bitter stories. We’re singing along with the second chorus before we realize what he’s telling us, by which time it’s too late. What sets Gregson apart is the even-handed but never dispassionate power to examine both sides of a relationship, often in a single song. Sometimes in a single verse. “This Broken Home” is even prettier, Collister’s gorgeous voice listing the ways failing lovers hurt each other, emotionally and physically. Only a writer as gifted as Gregson could write so honestly about the things he’s done and only a singer as irresistible as Collister could sing those words without sounding whiny or bitter. You wonder how people this smart could so totally fail tot fix themselves as easily as they write about themselves.
The pair save their best for the two songs that rest at the very center of the album. “Snow in Philadelphia” and “I Could Be Happy” are achingly detailed ballads about yearning for someone you probably shouldn’t even be thinking about anymore. In “Snow” Gregson watches the English sky, singing to someone on another continent [where she may, in fact, have gone to escape him]. “Happy” finds Collister weak with desire, yet soaring with passion for someone we’re not even sure is real. Man of her dreams? Mystery date? The Man she wishes/hoped/thought Gregson was? For an instant her voice and heart part the clouds…and then darkness returns. Another cruel Gregson trick, made more painful as he lets Chirstine play it on us. If they’re not going to be happy, we aren’t either.
The Last Word would have been an amazing record even if we didn’t know what we do about Gregson and Collister. Our knowledge of them makes it a devastating work of art and a bittersweet farewell. Released in the US on Rhino’s ill-fated RNA label, the album vanished instantly. Christine and Gregson finally separated and went on to comfortable niche solo careers, both making lovely records and becoming mainstays of the AAA/folk circuits here and in Europe. Neither have done anything close to the raw emotion and high art of The Last Word, which is probably for the best…for them and us.
NEXT: X-Ray Spex!