I've been friendly with the guitarist and singer/songwriter Gary Lucas since the late 1980s, so I've followed, sometimes from a fair remove, sometimes pretty up close, his collaborations with the likes of Peter Stampfel, Jeff Buckley, Jon Langford, Dean Bowman (I wrote the liner notes for their underappreciated 2010 album Chase The Devil, and many others. I don't recall having been quite so excited to hear about one of Gary's collaborative projects as I was in late 2011, when at a lunch he told me that he would be soon working with the British musician Peter Hammill. I think one reason the prospect delightedly agitated me to such an extent was because as much as I immediately thought "Oh, perfect!" when Gary mentioned Peter's name, there was also the fact that as much as I felt it was a conspiracy made in heaven, I also had absolutely no idea what it would sound like. When Gary worked with the artists I mentioned above, while I couldn't say the results were predictable—Gary's brief in life has never been to make predictable music—I always had a strong notion of the mode he'd fall into with each partner. With Stampfel he made eclectic, antic, irreverent slapstick roots music. With Langford, manic angry urban B-picture punk with an irrepressible smirk. With Bowman, implacable, earthshaking deep blues. With Buckley...well, the Buckley thing is a whole other thing, and I still feel a bristle of irritation in sympathy with Gary over the fact that a lot of people who go into mystic fits of ecstasy over "Grace" and "Mojo Pin" sometimes seem willfully unaware that those tunes belong as much to Gary as to Jeff. Like I said, it's another thing. To circle back to my point, I had, here, no idea what the result of a Lucas/Hammill summit would sound like. And that was exciting. (And it had a lot to do with the fact that Hammill himself, over the course of an almost impossibly prolific 45-year career, both solo and as a founder of the iconic art rock outfit Van Der Graaf Generator, has remained both entirely sui generis—once you hear his voice for the first time, you'll never mistake it for anyone else's—and steadfastly hard to pin down. Although his tunes do tend, largely, to take off from a darkly anthemic E minor, his instrumentation bounces from keyboard-heavy prog formations to punkish 1-2-3-4 guitar front lines to near-musique-concrete electro-acoustic combinations.)
The record that came out of their early 2012 sessions, Other World, is as fascinating and affecting and unexpected as I had hoped it to be. It's just Gary and Peter, no band, no bass and/or drums. No keyboards either. Both men play acoustic and electric guitars with a panoply of effects. While Gary is a fine all-around songwriter himself, here Hammill handles all the lyrics and does all the singing. This is as it should be: if you're making a record with Peter Hammill, you want Peter Hammill singing. His mordant, vinegary, voice has a presentational theatricality that some find similar to David Bowie, but with Hammill there's no sense of a mask, no irony; it's almost as if he's taken to heart the adage from a film we're all fond of, "The only performance that makes it all the way is the one that acheives madness." Or exorcises it. Listen to Hammill's vocal contributions to Robert Fripp's 1979 Exposure; practically primal scream therapy.
Other World begins in a relatively sedate, understated mode with "Spinning Coins," maybe the most conventional song on the record, a largely acoustic ballad (showcasing Gary's ability to make a steel-string acoustic sound like a virtual orchestra) in which a love affair is decided in a coin toss, and Hammill, sounding relatively isolated, muses on the "outcomes of randomness" as Gary conjures up soundscapes, blue notes transmuted through echoes and delays and phasing into cosmic points of bleakness and awe.
The themes of the songs are largely not unfamiliar in Hammill's ouevre. "Some Kind of Fracas" obliquely alludes to getting fucked over in the music biz, and "This Is Showbiz" and "The Kid" are ironical and stage-frighted portraits of the artist as a captive of his own "profession"—"applause can't sustain you alone." Gary's finger-picked chords on "Showbiz" impart a sardonic jauntiness to the observations, something you don't get, say, on similarly inspired musings featured on such Hammill classics as Nadir's Big Chance or The Future Now. But Hammill's most stunning and disturbing lyrics are about the way, as a 65-year-old man, he lives now. "Reboot, and count to ten/God knows I hope this process isn't shot down," he sings, steadily, on "Reboot," which, when the lyric's over, turns into an aural light show of wow-and-flutter riffing, hooks and licks lost in space trying to find a groove. "What remains/What's left before me/is the pricking of the thumbs, the needles and pins/the thinning out begins/of kith and kin," he sings on "Kith and Kin." I like the juxtaposition of The Searchers and Shakespeare in those lines, a welcome bit of humor in an otherwise grim but clear-eyed observation that Gary ornaments with notes like droplets of tears.
So, no, this is not an "upbeat" recording. But it is a nourishing and exhilarating one—ostensibly psychedelic music with a bracingly sober perspective. Not a raging against the dying of the light but a stiff-backed and stubborn celebration of the light that still remains. Some reviewer—well, one reviewer, particularly, Clive Bell in The Wire, writing a deeply ambivalent but intelligent and attentive notice on the record—balked at on ostensible over-reliance on effects from Gary, but I can't say I was bothered. The man is a stone virtuoso of the guitar straight (if you doubt it just take down your copy of Beefheart's Doc At The Radar Station and play "Flavor Bud Living" and get back to me in the morning) and when he goes electric effects are a part of his arsenal; the manipulation of his guitar's sound is an extension of his playing, not a short cut for something he can't acheive with his own two hands. In any event, the effects are hardly used to slapdash ends. He creates halls of mirrors, has the srtings talk back to the singer, all sorts of things. The name of the record is Other World, but the point of the title is that it's a world spun off this one we all share, a creation of Hammill and Lucas' heads, hearts, hands, and voices (literal and metaphorical). It is a rich and disturbing one. I hope they get around to creating another some day soon. In the meantime, I can't say I've exhausted this one yet; the record is as rich and deep and constantly treasure-yielding as any I've heard in years.