The recent re-release on vinyl of Psychic TV’s 1983 album Dreams Less Sweet has made me ponder one of those very important questions in life… Could it be that this is actually the best album ever made? The more I listen to it, the more convinced I get.
In general, I’m conservative in terms of taste and it’s been very hard for me to realise that The Stooges’ Funhouse or Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street perhaps no longer fill the emotional voids of yesteryear. I can still enjoy them, and occasionally do, but not in the same compensatory way like when I was 15. But that is merely a personal perspective of course. Life changes. Musical tastes change with it.
Which albums are still flawless on every level 30 years after their release? Well, those two rock’n’roll classics certainly are, I’d say (and then we’re talking more than 40 years!). Probably a few others. But if we zoom back to 1983, what was going on that still remains fresh and interesting today? Not much, right?
Throbbing Gristle had already re-created or corrupted the concept of an album and made the experience as much an intellectual merry-go-round as a sensual one. Although existentially dark and steeped in harsh, late 70s UK life, TG brought revelation upon revelation to the generation that wasn’t satisfied with merely the three chord simplicity of punk. Not only was an element of intellectual adventure brought in. The very idea or concept of what an album could actually be was dropped like a smart bomb in the cesspool of clever and self-indulgent nihilism of the era.
This openmindedness in structure and magical planting was developed further on Psychic TV’s debut album Force the Hand of Chance (1982), but only to a degree. The focus here seemed to be to corrupt expectations post-TG more than anything else. Soft-sung pop ballads and quite conventional music surely made some die-hard TG fans twitch, but in general it was a pleasant new direction.
If Force the Hand of Chance was the smooth antithesis to TG in general, then the synthesis that followed turned out in every way perfect. Dreams Less Sweet is so well balanced in its content and form, so imbued with overt messages and esoteric secrets, so intricate in its concoctions and so simple in its totality that I fail to find a similarly perfect album.
If we stick to the non-postmodern approach first, ie rub off all the programmatic raisons d’être and just leave it to the ears (preferably snugly stuck in good headphones), we are sucked in by a church organ and into a serene… The Orchids… What a masterpiece! Genesis P-Orridge’s frail voice and exquisite lyrics are matched by a simple orchestral arrangement, with oboe and marimbas. How unlikely was that arrangement at the time?
On to Botanica, with violent drumming and musique concrète elements, sliding into Iron Glove, an almost Morriconesque backing track to a recorded telephone poem (read by TG- and PTV-collaborator Monte Cazazza)… Always is Always Forever, a choral ”arrangement” for solo voice, followed by a 60s-inspired pop ballad, White Nights, again centered around P-Orridge’s voice in a mi(d)st of Beach Boys vibes. Followed by another high contrast twist, Finale, with machine guns, fire, snarling dogs and martial trumpets.
Eleusis is another vocal piece, with added percussive glass-like elements, perhaps to accentuate frailty in power or vice versa. Medmenham brings in forceful Tibetan Thighbone trumpets, seductively swirling in stereo. Ancient Lights: a collage of vocals, telephones, traffic sounds, karate instructions and more. Proof on Survival…”Do not be deterred by little results… Persevere…” (with sounds of someone being buried, in this case the microphonic head called ”Ringo”)
Eden 1: A frenzied telephone collage turns into experimental minimalist ”rock”… And tattooing sounds… Eden 2: More chorals… Eden 3: TG-sounding aggression, soon to be pleasantly contrasted by Clouds without Water… The soundtrack to a 1920s stroll on the English counryside…? Black Moon sounds like Lou Reedish basic pop…”The little boy, a living ghost…”
Silver and Gold: Ethereal Tibetan singing bowls… Followed by the ”smash hit” (in the literal sense) In the Nursery… Inner spiritual visions recounted to violent music…”Without is without in the nursery…”
Circle ends the album… A single flute in emotional farewells, actually bordering on the sentimental… Not so much "El Condor Pasa" but perhaps "El Condom Plaza"…? Because when the music’s over and the album’s over your mind has truly and genuinely been boinked, severely and pleasantly so.
If we jump back on the postmodern bandwagon and take a look at what’s there on the programmatic level, we find a multitude of references that further thickens and makes potent the already beautiful structure. Always is Always Forever is the classic Manson Family song, here revamped into high seriousness. Clouds without Water is the title of an Aleister Crowley book from 1909. The emotional tone of Crowley’s poems surely resonates well with Dreams Less Sweet:
”All hope of life even from the rare sad seeds
It blows from sunnier vales and happier hills,
Though at best they be but worthless weeds.
I stand – I scan the infinite horizon
Of hopeless hope – yet I must travel on.”
(Clouds without Water, ”The Hermit”)
Medmenham was the place where Sir Francis Dashwood gathered his acolytes in the caves of his infamous Hell Fire Club. Incidentally the same caves where the Tibetan singing bowls of Silver and Gold were recorded.
The sounds of ”Mr Sebastian” (a pioneer of genital and other kinds of piercing in the UK) tattooing a young Geoff Rushton/Jhon Balance. Eleusis, the initiatory environment/temple in ancient Greece that allowed its chosen few to see beyond the veil of ordinary life, very likely through hallucinogenics. The ”Nursery” was the term for the ritual space/temple of the PTV related order/group Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth. Burroughs-references are here too (and Burroughs’ ”second mind” Brion Gysin is thanked in the sleeve notes). And everything was recorded with ”holophonic” sound, an Ersatz kind of stereo that does indeed create quite an eerie presence (as mentioned before, listen in headphones). Et cetera.
In all, the form and the content add up to a shockingly wealthy impression of sub- and occultural magnificence. It’s not an ”experimental” album. It’s not a haphazard attempt at being clever either. It’s truly a sui generis piece of art that just happened to manifest in sounds and words. A journal of inner experimentation, an invaluable example of artistic courage.
Yes, now I can see (and hear) it clearly: Dreams Less Sweet is indeed my favourite album. Whether it's the best one ever, I leave to you to decide.