1992, the year Voyager is released, will also be the year I first visit Japan, a country where I'm not only signed to a major label (Nippon Columbia, which also hosts Pizzicato 5), but acclaimed as some sort of pop star, thanks to the boosting of Oyamada. On my first trip to Tokyo that summer I'll walk into Wave Records, Shibuya and find a big display for an artist called Poison Girlfriend -- a direct reference to my 1987 Creation album, and a sign that, although my star may be falling in the UK, it's rising in Japan. There's more background in this spoken word mp3 -- a series of clues (as well as glimpses of my first Japan trip) also flash across the screen in a clip from the Man Of Letters documentary in which I talk about a "new sensibility in the 90s... electronic inwardness... looking into 21st century... spiritual capitalism emerging... sensual science developing... to find god in science... an embodiment of systems theory... and creator principle in general... longing for a god who wasn't a moral principle but formal".
If my imagination has gone East, I haven't entirely left developments in the West behind, though; the spacey, spiritual sounds of early 90s acts like The Orb and PM Dawn count for a lot in Voyager too. Let's listen. (Lyrics, reviews and interviews are here.)
1. Cibachrome Blue: "Take a voyage through the heart of darkness, to the sound of violins..." Voyager really is a journey -- panoramic, widescreen, Technicolor, surprisingly lush and starry-eyed after the short, jokey stabs of the Hippopotamomus album. The "electronic inwardness" -- a focus on quietly jubilant, technologically-mediated spirituality -- begins with the injunction that the traveller-pilgrim should "find what he knows" by closing his eyes. This was a time when the imagery of space probes and drugs had returned to pop music, in which inner space and outer space were closely mapped, as they hadn't been since the end of the 1960s. It was a time of experiment, in which it felt as if we might just find God in DNA or computers.
How I rate this now: Some of the more unkind reviewers thought I'd turned into David Icke; I prefer to see this as the album that prefigures my conversion to Islam. Listening to it now, I find something shiverishly powerful about this track. There's a sense of a luxuriant, sensual inner life here, and of a faith in the future.
2. Virtual Reality: It all comes flooding back -- fractals, virtual reality, multimedia computers, chaos theory... Digital culture was beginning, and it was exciting. This song matches the hype ("you can have virtually anything in virtual reality") to the correspondent hunger it needs to act on the 1990s subject. Behind it is the Everly Brothers' All I Have To Do Is Dream, updated with a Pet Shop Boys'-type arrangement and lots of big wide ambient sound effects and the sense that the imagination this time would be technologically mediated.
How I rate this now: Although the digital hype and advertising slogans (the lyric even says "Just Do It!") make this a weirdly superficial -- even schizoid -- song, that's also where it gets its power; there's no cynicism undermining the sincere desire "to have virtually anything" (which of course implies "to virtually have", or not to have at all). And although some kind of New Age spirituality has replaced the carnal sexuality of old Momus material, bear in mind that there's a latent subtext of masturbation behind the Everly Brothers track, and this one.
3. Vocation: The thing you're thinking now is "Where's the cynicism gone?" and possibly "Where are the narrators and characters?" Both questions are answered by another 1992 album, The Ultraconformist: Live Whilst Out Of Fashion (Richmond Records / Cherry Red), onto which I dumped all the vitriol and role play. I was keeping Voyager for optimism, and that's what this song conveys -- a strangely solitary joy, the dizziness of someone dancing alone with headphones on, possibly on ecstasy, although probably via an entirely natural high.
How I rate this now: I really like this now, it's funky. There are shadows in the "pyrne in a gyre" -- a line from Yeats' poem The Second Coming, a poem about things spinning out of control. But mostly, here, things are spinning in an intoxicating way, and the clavinette and string samples carry you forward on an irresistible tide.
4. Conquistador: Not all in this digital garden is rosy: love, this song tells us, "has left the arena". The song's architecture is spacious, full of echoes and widely-spaced lines. It seems to be about the possibility of disappearance, from a relationship, perhaps, or from the public eye. "One day I'm here, the next I vanish," I sing, over Isaac Hayes samples. But "it's not the end of the world, there are compensations" -- money, or drugs. The middle section -- "You can build up an empire, you can be a conquistador, and when you've won, what'll you do if love has left the arena?" -- seems to be directed at Alan McGee, who was in the process of selling the lion's share of Creation to Sony.
How I rate this now: It's a big, bold early 90s pop statement, but it isn't really me. Did I need to release this, or should I have left it to the Stereo MCs?
5. Spacewalk: The new regime of floppy love and positivity gets a little critique in this number, based on a sample of Deee-Lite's "What Is Love?" It's like Iggy Pop's Dum Dum Boys wrapped around a Brel song, Les Bonbons 67, for instance, which hits out at hippies for their superficial optimism. Inside isn't necessarily a good place to hole up: "that's where the space is, that's where the love died". The music gradually gets more committed, and the narrator seems to be falling into a black hole as he sings "I want to see you, I want to feel you, I want to touch you, I want to be with you!" It isn't at all certain that he'll escape the crushing black pull of nothing, though.
How I rate this now: This is stirring stuff. I remember being called into the Creation office a few weeks after the album had come out. McGee sat me down and played through the whole album -- as if he'd just heard it -- telling me "This is great, this is great!" We ended up getting The Dub Pistols to remix Spacewalk, which was released as a single, but didn't do much. What strikes me, as the album goes on, is that in losing "myself" somewhat (the high-profile lyrics and so on) I've managed to capture the era fairly well, and much more critically than I remembered. So, while The Ultraconformist is more fun and more "me", this one really puts the hopes and fears of 1992 in aspic. By stepping aside, I've somehow ended up somewhere central.
6. Summer Holiday 1999: Side Two opens with something a bit more "written" -- a song that captures something powerfully futuristic, probably the album's best so far. The mid-section comes from a love letter written by my first Japanese girlfriend, Junko, and is translated by my good friend of that time, the appropriately gender-ambiguous Chiharu Watabe. Thirteen years later I would experience "spring snow in the wind on the island of Hokkaido" for myself.
How I rate this now: This is almost my Ashes to Ashes; a great pop song combining sci-fi and melodrama. Which reminds me -- along with the "spring snow" reference -- that a production of some Mishima plays I saw at the Edinburgh Festival in 1990 played a part in this new direction. One of the plays was a melodrama with sci-fi elements, and I liked the unexpected combination.
7. Afterglow: Over a dreamy PM-Dawn-type backing, this is a lazy rap welcoming someone to the world, as if an arriving flight had come from some other planet, or was a weary return from an idealistic search for "other ways of living". It's actually a song addressed to the girl I'd fallen in love with, Shazna (the original lyric was "welcome to the world, little girl, welcome to the world"), and it's about what it's like to be young when the world is already old. "Too late to enjoy it, too soon to destroy it, too dumb to invent it, too smart to end it".
How I rate this now: Strangely touching, and with some nice sounds. I particularly like the John Lennon quote, which points up the correspondence between this part of the 1990s and the end of the 1960s.
8. Trans-Siberian Express: This is a soft rap about ancientness and otherness and death -- we're on a train traveling through icy Siberian wastes. Kraftwerk's Trans-Europe Express is a distant memory, but there's Anglo-Saxon poetry instead of German Romanticism. As in the song before, the theme of the chorus is being young when the world is old: "the world is long, there is no consolation for those who join at the end of the line".
How I rate this now: This is the ancestor of song-poems like 2PM and Going For A Walk With A Line, and it's a form I like a lot. Here the music complements startling images with a funky beauty. Good stuff -- but did you know the song inspired a murder mystery? Stuart Kaminsky's Murder on the Trans-Siberian Express was inspired by this song.
9. Voyager: Although no guitar survives in the final version, Voyager is the only song from this era that I wrote on guitar and laboured over -- a key song, in fact; there were lots of demos, all in different styles. Here again there's a sense of retreating from a damaged world into a kind of quietist "electronic inwardness" and narcissism. The narrator watches films endlessly on his Sony Watchman, but can't entirely escape impending apocalypse -- "the weather's wrong". Some kind of commitment breaks through in the middle section, although it's really just the character realising how terrified he is of love.
How I rate this now: It's massive, this production, with broken string samples that try to slither up to something transcendent, but hit some kind of snake and slither back down again. I think it's almost too brutal for me to love -- I think I prefer the more restrained, vulnerable 2006 version, which restores the original guitar.
10. Momutation 3: The album ends with a Si-Cut DB remix of Conquistador.
How I rate this now: This is really just a funky book-end, pleasant enough as a mood piece, but not really essential.
Next: Timelord (1993)