Friday, 21 March 2014

21/03/14 - Strickland

The theme of a recent JuicyPips centred around celebrating the LP as an entity, lamenting the buffet culture of downloading a track here and a track there, and suggesting that today’s music consumer doesn’t appreciate the craft of the album in the way that their parents did. But there’s one recent album that spins this concept around; that proves that there are still people who have the wherewithal to clear forty-five minutes out of their day, sit down and just listen to an album from start to finish. I’m talking about Plan B’s ‘The Defamation of Strickland Banks’.

This is arguably one of the greatest albums of the twenty-first century. The most impactful element of its launch was that it was so very unexpected; Plan B’s critically acclaimed first album, 2006’s ‘Who Needs Actions When You Got Words’ was a rather gritty hip-hop album (albeit with enough indie nods to give it pan-genre appeal). For his second long-player to be a soul record was something that shocked and surprised many, and he didn’t enter into it lightly either – it wasn’t a Robbie Williams-esque ‘yeah, I’ll have a pop at that, it’ll rake in some cash’ effort, he went all-out in pursuit of perfection. He polished up his singing to an obsessive degree, he assembled a solid backing band, he did his research to get the whole thing musically spot-on. And then he cloistered himself away to craft a concept album.

Now, the phrase ‘concept album’ always brings mixed results, but there’s nothing to fear here. The concept of 2010’s ‘The Defamation of Strickland Banks’ is relatively simple: it’s an album that tells a story, with each song representing a chapter of the tale. So while some tracks were released as singles (as is a major-label necessity, natch), it makes most sense if you listen to the whole thing, in order.
Strickland Banks is the fictional protagonist, a sort of Generation Y Ziggy Stardust. He’s a suave and successful soul singer, and the album tells the story of his downfall as he’s imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. The whole thing is brilliantly written and beautifully crafted. And here’s what happens, track by track:

Love Goes Down / Writing’s On The Wall
The first two tracks on the album are songs being sung by Strickland Banks in concert. They’re fairly traditional soul numbers that set the scene for the narrative. (They also serve to really confuse any fan of the first album who buys this one, unaware of the back story, and wonders if the distributor’s put the wrong disc in the case…)

Stay Too Long
This chronicles the after-party. Following the show, Strickland and his entourage go out on the town, get drunk, cause a bit of mischief. He meets a girl, they get in a cab, they go to a hotel, they get it on.

She Said
Following the one night stand, the girl turns out to be an obsessive fan. She’s telling him over and over that she loves him, that ‘when I first heard ‘Love Goes Down’ something started burning in my heart’. Strickland is understandably disturbed by this, and he shows her the door. She doesn’t take it well.
The next thing we know, Strickland is testifying in court, having been accused of raping the woman.

Welcome to Hell
…and so he finds himself in prison. A famous face surrounded by criminals. ‘I put my brave face on,’ he says. ‘Can’t let them know that I’m scared.’

Hard Times / The Recluse
These two tracks illustrate how he’s having a really bad time, becoming increasingly psychologically damaged by his incarceration and the irreparable damage that the allegations have caused to his lifestyle and career. He’s frightened, alone, losing hope.

Traded In My Cigarettes
Harassed and abused by other prisoners, he saves up his cigarettes and uses them as currency to purchase a shiv on the black market in order to protect himself. 

Strickland is attacked by another prisoner. Using his shiv to defend himself, he inadvertently kills his assailant. As a second attacker approaches, Strickland is saved by another inmate who kills the second man. This ally is serving a life sentence and offers to take the blame for both killings, given that Strickland is serving a five-year stretch. He agrees, but is wracked by crushing guilt.

Darkest Place
Unable to cope with this guilt, Strickland spirals into depression. Months of nightmares and soul-searching lead him to lose his faith. All hope is gone.

Free / I Know A Song
He becomes increasingly consumed by the injustices that have resulted from that initial wrongful accusation, yearning to be free, incensed by the loss of everything he had. He slowly comes to accept prison life as a reality, but cannot accept the circumstances that landed him there.

What You Gonna Do
…and finally we find Strickland back in court as new evidence is brought to the case. His loneliness is exacerbated by his loved ones’ absence from the courtroom. He’s given up on himself; ‘you can set me free or bang me up, just stop torturing me, tell me what you’re gonna do… you can cut me loose, or you can bind me up, ’cos to tell you the truth, I don’t really give a fuck’.
And his fate? Well, if you know the album, you’ll know. If you don’t, I won’t ruin the ending.

‘Defamation…’ really is the complete package – compelling plot, beautiful arrangement, sublime production. It’s one of the great albums of our time. Go on, clear forty-nine minutes and fifty-eight seconds from your schedule this afternoon and revel in the pure cinematic splendour of it all.
Albums are still being made as albums, rather than just collections of songs. And this one’s a masterpiece.

(Sorry, JuicyPips will go back to trying to be funny next week, promise.)

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