The new Adam & the Fish-Eyed Poets record talks itself into a corner. By definition, it couldn’t have sprung from anywhere but here – it is a concept album built around a ruinous “arranged” marriage, and is therefore, like the entrance exams, and lying to your wife about your cigarette habit, automatically very Indian – and yet, it will never meet this version of the country. The lads’ vocabulary consists of efficient two minute popcraft, reverb-heavy new-wave guitar, and drums and bass which crackle and snap all over the shop; this is an idiom that the people they paint wouldn’t know or care less about; thus, simply through choice of lexicon, the record and the world it describes will always be forced to stare at each other from a distance, in mutual incomprehension.
Pop music is a natural medium for expressing sadness, longing, and desperation; a handy chord change and a well-turned hook can do more to breathe life into emotions than a paragraph of print ever could. Where it runs into its boundaries is in bringing out detail, and it’s detail that Songs from an Island deals in: it has an explicit premise; like Watertown and Tommy, it tries to tell a third person’s story from start to finish, rather than just implying abstract moods. Unlike Tommy, though, which mates snappy, radio-friendly singles with awkward link tracks put there simply to help the plot along, Island spreads its wares evenly: much like the elegant Watertown, each of its songs takes its fair share of the burden of keeping the plotline going. The idea is not to have a handful of semi-topical hits forcefully strung together to add up to a complete tale; instead, it is to have the whole record work like a movie, with each song charting out a different scene.
In terms of sound, however, Island shows nothing of Frank Sinatra’s sensible dignity: where Watertown is tidy and measured, Island speeds along with noisy wordiness; in this, it recalls Elvis Costello’s Get Happy!! more than anything else, an album which was meant as a tribute to classic Stax and Atlantic, which instead turned out to be a paranoiac force-feeding his audience a torrent of words over tight, harshly economical guitar-bass-and-drums.
But all this talk reduces Songs from an Island to theory, which is just all wrong: the software engineer and the gay, troubled wife of Adam’s record could be any one of a million couples in modern, urban India, and their story, just another case of the sordid failure of the institution of marriage; the record itself, though, raises these banalities to high pop drama. The songs, the band, the words, and the singing, all come together to make people clutch their collars as the dirt and the sleaze of an awful relationship fly by; like all the best pop, this music grabs you and makes you shake your poor bottom whether you like it or not, and the theme, or lack thereof, comes afterwards.
With Songs from an Island, Adam & his Fish-Eyed partners-in-crime have walled themselves in thrice over. Pop music isn’t this country’s medium of choice. Even within the pop community, two-minute new wave doesn’t go down well with the unhygienic, bearded black T-shirts who’d rather drool to Slayer than put their minds to grasping a genuinely good record. Further still, of all the attempts to marry an essentially western form to the subcontinent – lazy fusion, the occasional bit of simple-minded political commentary – Adam & the boys avoid the easy ways out, and try to explain something of this insane, sodded place in a language people outside might understand. Songs from an Island doesn’t engage with its surroundings any more than anything out of India’s deliberately insular pop scene ever does, but it at least tries to look at them with intelligence and empathy. Better still, it’s a lovely record, and I’m happy to get sodding drunk to it whenever I have a few hours to myself. It’s the best told story of modern India yet, and I love it to bits, and so should you if you have any sense.