Sunday, July 8, 2007

China Sea

Beach Boys and heroin don't really seem to go together, but Cale's most faithful Beach Boys homage (echoing but not copying the structure and composition of "Add Some Music To Your Day" from 1970's Sunflower) is about a junkie in the China Sea. I think.

China Sea is a lecture, either to another person or to himself, of the classic "don't worry about him, he's fine" variety. I really don't know what it's about. The China Sea reference seems to be a red herring, to a certain extent. I don't think it has anything to do with Vietnam. I have my doubts whether any actual sailing is involved. It sounds like a stab at the classic pop song with a few dark flourishes, but there may be a layer of meaning I'm missing. I'll tell you, "Oh, Mama, she done told me so" sounds very strange coming out of this Welshman's mouth.

The song is broken into three parts. The main lyric takes the first minute, an instrumental break takes the second forty-five seconds, and a coda of "I can hear that whistle, I can hear it blowing" (sounding very much like the "add some, add some music" coda of that song) takes the last forty-five. The "building block" construction of the song fits very well with the Brian Wilson approach to music.

Musically, it's very pleasant. I mean, a loping bass riff intermingling with a warm synthesizer part, a very laid-back and gentle drum part (with a tambourine?!), all sorts of choral voices (many of them Cale, I think), and a very optimistic sounding string arrangement arching over the middle of the song. There are woodblock percussion-and-xylophone accents extremely reminiscent of some SMiLE-era tracks. The lead vocal is very smooth and poker-faced - if Cale wants it to be dark he's not showing it.

So what the fuck is this doing on Helen of Troy? I mean, this is lyrically Cale's darkest album bar none. For God's sake, this trifle is bookended by the title track, dripping with decadence and hatred, and the aforementioned Engine. It's a strange, strange choice, but characteristic of this schizophrenic album. It seems to work - the transition from Helen is a little jarring (but anything would seem jarring next to that), but the transition into Engine is surprisingly smooth - though it contributes to the uneven feeling of an unbalanced, unbalancing album. I think it's by design: very uncomfortable, but you're feeling it. A pleasant song makes an unpleasant album less pleasant. Kudos, Mr. Cale.

1 comment:

Inverarity said...

I used to dislike this song. Now I like it, even outside its context as a destabilizer. Hm. It's not due to exposure, as I've listened to it fairly seldom.

"Your boy in China" sounds a lot like the journalistic/intelligence cliche "our man in [blank]". There's a Graham Greene comedy called "Our Man in Havana." I don't know what the origin of the phrase is, but it's possible this is a reference to that.