mon 21/05/2018

Reissue CDs Weekly: Television Personalities | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: Television Personalities

Reissue CDs Weekly: Television Personalities

‘Beautiful Despair’, a collection of previously unreleased demos, is an uncomfortable listen

Television Personalities: Dan Treacy (left) and Jowe HeadAlison Withers

How much of someone else’s despair is it possible to take? What are the limits on putting a sense of desolation or isolation into a song? Can such naked expression be mediated by a glossy production or crowded instrumental arrangements which distract from the core essence of the song?

All three questions are raised by the new Television Personalities archive release Beautiful Despair. Rather than being an unreleased album, it is a collection of 15 previously unheard home recordings taped in 1989 and 1990 between the albums Privilege (1989) and Closer to God (1992). This was a period of stability for the band, which had seemed to vanish after the 1984 album The Painted Word. At this point in the late Eighties Television Personalities main-man Dan Treacy was in a fruitful musical relationship with bassist, all-round instrumentalist and former Swell Maps member Jowe Head. Their regular drummer was Jeff Bloom.

Television Personalities Beautiful DespairHowever, in contrast to the seeming security of the period, the songs on Beautiful Despair include the title track, “I Get Frightened Too”, "My Very First Nervous Breakdown” and “I Don't Want to Live This Life”. It is all-too easy to read too much into what are, ultimately, creative works: songs are not necessarily reportage or commentary on day-to-day experiences. Yet here they are, a group of songs which in their immediacy and without a studio gloss ostensibly catalogue a particular mind-set. Much of Beautiful Despair is deeply uncomfortable listening.

Thankfully, these apparent reports from the edge are balanced by – though still difficult – more emotionally upbeat material like “If You Fly Too High” (inspired by a close encounter with The Lemonheads’ Evan Dando) , “I Like That in a Girl” (drawing from a conversation with Felt’s Lawrence) and the nostalgia-imbued “Goodnight Mister Spaceman”.

The tracks were recorded on a four-track cassette machine at Head’s Stoke Newington flat and feature just him, Treacy and a Roland drum machine. Treacy sings and plays guitar, and Head plays bass. The sound is filled out by Head’s acoustic and electric guitar, autoharp, psaltery and synth. Head has said “the intention was to finish and release these tracks at some point.” Of course, the sound quality is less-than hi fi. Even so, these demos have a surprising clarity and Beautiful Despair has the flow of a proper album with a beginning, middle and end.

Many of songs are familiar from when they were originally released. “Goodnight Mister Spaceman”, “Hard Luck Story Number 39”, “Have a Nice Day” (as “I Hope You Have a Nice Day”), “Honey for the Bears”, “My Very First Nervous Breakdown”, “Razor Blades and Lemonade” and “This Heart's Not Made of Stone” were re-recorded for Closer to God.

Dan Treacy appears to have no involvement in 'Beautiful Despair': nothing is known about his welfare or whereabouts

Beyond the album issued after these demos were recorded, “Love is a Four-Letter Word” was reworked to become the live staple “Love is Better Than War”. “How Does it Feel to be Loved?” cropped up on a 1996 single and the same year’s scrappy live album Mod is Dead (recorded December 1991). As an instrumental, “I Get Frightened Too” was included on 1994’s Far Away and Lost in Joy EP, as was (with vocals) “I Don't Want to Live This Life”. “I Suppose You Think it's Funny” appeared on the 1995 Do You Think if You Were Beautiful You'd be Happy? EP. Only “Beautiful Despair”, “I Like That in a Girl” and “If You Fly Too High” have not been heard previously as (relatively) conventional studio recordings. All the tracks on Beautiful Despair were live staples.

Dan Treacy appears to have no involvement in Beautiful Despair. In 2016, he was in nursing home. Publicly, nothing is known about his welfare or whereabouts after this. Consequently it’s impossible to tell if these 15 tracks were the dry-run or template for an album, or recorded to test material out before cherry-picking what would be best for the next album. As seven of the songs were re-recorded for Closer to God, the latter seems most likely.

Approach this release with care. The first word in its title does not necessarily paint an accurate picture of its frequently uneasy contents.

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters