Lost and found: Colin Newman’s Commercial Suicide
By, Feb 3 2012
(CRAMMED DISCS, 1986)
At a time when it seems like any two-bit album recorded in the 1980s is being revived and reissued and afforded “classic” status, it’s particularly vexing that Colin Newman’s Commercial Suicide hasn’t enjoyed similar treatment. Don’t get me wrong: this solo album by the Wire stalwart isn’t all that obscure, and it sold decently upon release, certainly more so than its droll title would suggest. You’ve probably heard of it. But have you actually heard it?
Following the first dissolution of Wire in 1980, Newman signed to Beggars Banquet for his first solo album, A-Z, a suite of puckish pop-punk that had its moments, but more often felt like lukewarm Wire leftovers. Ivo Watts-Russell, magnetic founder of the Beggars-sprung 4AD, released Newman’s sophomore effort, a collection of mostly ambient miniatures entitled Provisionally Entitled The Singing Fish (1981), and then Not To (1982), which really was an album of lukewarm Wire leftovers, albeit interspersed with some new compositions.
With Wire back in action, Newman saw an opportunity to explore a more open-hearted brand of songwriting, and more extravagant production, in his solo career.
In 1984 Wire re-formed, and Newman parted ways with 4AD – though that same year a demo from the A-Z sessions, ‘Not Me’, was covered, with rare levity, by Watts-Russell’s studio supergroup This Mortal Coil (vocal duties were handled by Modern English’s Robbie Grey). With Wire back in action, Newman saw an opportunity to explore a more open-hearted brand of songwriting, and more extravagant production, in his solo career. Commercial Suicide , released in 1986, was the result.
Around the time of the record’s conception Newman had begun a relationship, creative and romantic, with Malka Spiegel of Israeli synth-punks Minimal Compact. Newman and Spiegel married in the year of Commercial Suicide’s release, and went on to play together in Githead and found the techno oriented ~swim label together. It’s virtually impossible not to hear Commercial Suicide as an album about commitment, about settling down, about coming to terms with the end of fickle, free-roaming youth and the beginning of something more serious and lasting. It expertly dramatises the paradoxes of feeling that inhabit someone in this position: gratitude for newfound security, anxiety about newfound responsibility; excitement about the life to come, mourning for the one that’s been left behind. Newman’s lyrics capture his sense of joy, relief even, at having found his life-partner, but also his awareness of the arbitrariness of the union: “In the balance another fine decision,” he sings on opening track ‘Their Terrain’, “Yet weighted mainly by fate.” He later adds, in ‘2-Sixes’, that “the safest choice may not be the wisest, but who is to judge in this?”
Commercial Suicide as an album about commitment, about settling down, about coming to terms with the end of fickle, free-roaming youth and the beginning of something more serious and lasting.
Lyrically-speaking, Commercial Suicide is very much in the confessional mode. It couldn’t be further removed from the oblique, digressive verbal strategies of Wire, that world of serpentine miners and meter-stretching map references. No, here Newman prefers to speak plainly: “I always demand fidelity / Preferring not to court catastrophe / Honesty is always more simple in the long run.” As befits the overarching lyrical themes, the music pull in two directions at once: it’s at once celebratory and rueful. “I’ve got to keep you guessing,” he confirms in a conspiratorial whisper on ‘Can I Explain The Delay’.
Brian Eno has always exerted a strong influence – conceptual and musical – on Wire’s members, and on Commercial Suicide there are strong tonal echoes of the ambient magus’s Another Green World, with its of mingling of the urbane and the pastoral, the futuristic and the archaic, or at least the ever-present. Newman certainly seeks to ape Eno’s painterly use of synthesized elements and studio artifice, but the electronics are never allowed to dominate; they’re placed by engineer and “effects” man Gilles Martin in an engaged, mutually enriching dialogue with the sumptuous chamber instrumentation, arranged by Newman and Sean (aka John) Bonnar. The gathered Belgian ensemble – double bass, flute, French horn, oboe, trombone, trumpet, a gliding four-piece string section – are the stars of the show. They don’t just decorate Newman’s grievously honed songs, they bring them to bright, beaming life.
It couldn’t be further removed from the oblique, digressive verbal strategies of Wire, that world of serpentine miners and meter-stretching map references.
Malka Spiegel – the apparent subject of Newman’s writing – weighs in herself with jazzily fluent piano, bass and guitar, and takes to the microphone to duet with Newman in her flat, accented English on ‘2-Sixes’ (Newman, for his part, sounds unnervingly like Ian Brown here) and ‘I Can Hear Your…’, the song-from-under-the-floorboards which brings the album to an emotionally ambiguous conclusion, and is probably the closest Newman comes to the gothic minimalism produced by Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis in their (more or less) contemporaneous extra-Wire work. On the title track, keyboards chords are subjected to dubwise delay, as Newman flits between his time-honoured blokeish baritone and a knowingly camp half-yodel that summons Eno again, this time the bawdy narrator of Before And After Science; not for the first or last time on the album, what starts off as a straightforwardly narrative song unspools into a mantra that feels as though it could sustain itself on into infinity. The climax of the record arrives in the shape of ‘Feigned Hearing’, for me Newman’s finest solo writing achievement, launched heavenwards by an agglomeration of bagpipes (!), phased strings and chiming, chirruping electronics.
Commercial Suicide is an unmitigated delight: a complex, consoling, literate pop classic that is long overdue canonisation. The feeling I had when I first discovered it, quite by accident, two or three years ago, is best articulated by Newman: “There’s always a chance / of something new”, or, failing that, at least “something that hasn’t happened / In a long time.”