“Always on My Mind” is the final song on Dumbing Up, the fifth album by World Party -- the corporate pseudonym of Welsh-born singer-songwriter-producer-instrumentalist Karl Wallinger. I first heard the song nearly five years ago, after Dumbing Up saw its initial limited, U.K.-only release. I'd spent a year obsessing my way into Wallinger's work, and now lay in a Brooklyn bed listening to this eight-minute doomsday ballad.
It was a mundanely surreal vision of the End (or the Beginning?) redressed as a kind of lover's accusation directed at the world -- the world represented, a la Bob Dylan, by an unnamed “you.” A solo piano carried the fragile, repetitive melody; Wallinger, owner of an expressively ironic voice in the best Britpop tradition, sounded dazed and anxious, his irony crumbling by stages. The song was moving and magnificent, like much of the album that preceded it. But it wasn't necessarily more than that. My sleep was fairly peaceful. That was 2 a.m. on September 11, 2001.
A few hours later, the city I live in had a huge, burning wound. Over the next few days and weeks, as bomb scares sent mobs of us running for exits, as each of us was forced to imagine constantly the imminent possibility of our individual and collective deaths, “Always on My Mind” was the one thing, outside family and friends, that meant anything to me. That made the nightmare better, made it worse, made it undeniable; made me feel what could so easily be taken from me, and what already had been taken from so many others, in my city and my world.
Life went on finally, and “Always on My Mind” receded. I stopped listening so often to it. Most people had never heard it. But now it's returned, an apparition from another time, another world -- literally. Wallinger has re-released Dumbing Up, and this collection of celestial love calls and dystopian storm warnings, despite being 5 years old, may be the best pop album we'll get in 2006.
The history is this. Wallinger, who's somewhere in his 50s now, paid his dues in a run of forgotten 1970s bands, completed his apprenticeship in a late version of the cult-worshipped crypto-poppers the Waterboys, then went solo under the World Party banner with the 1986 album Private Revolution and a left-field hit, “Ship of Fools.” That was a spotty album, heavy on techno and light on hooks, but its follow-up, 1990's Goodbye Jumbo, was a masterpiece of organic post-Beatles pop; its breakneck Stones-styled single, “Way Down Now,” gave Wallinger his last brush with chart success to date.
The EP (1991's Thank You World) and albums (1993's Bang!, 1997's Egyptology) that followed lived up to and carried out the early promise. Deceptively prolific, Wallinger threw away some of his best work on hidden tracks (Bang!'s prescient Gulf War satire-cum-Beach Boys homage “Kuwait City”) and CD-single filler (“Nicotine,” perfect smoker's ode to the demon weed). His adoration of classic '60s and '70s pop was impossible to miss; though some used the similarities to dismiss him as a derivative, there was never a moment when Wallinger's music was not authentically, eccentrically his own. It was not imitation but creation: the rockers roared, the ballads wept, the epics towered.
But his label, Chrysalis, fell short in promoting him. In 1999, his great ballad “She's the One” was handed by the label, without Wallinger's knowledge, to English singer Robbie Williams; Williams scored a U.K. smash and the song's author had his pocket picked of a hit. By the time of Dumbing Up, Wallinger was foundering commercially; then, soon after the LP's release, he suffered a brain aneurysm and nearly died. Effectively, it seemed, judging by the silence of the past five years, his career was over. But somehow he brought it back: Wallinger is now touring America with the reissued Dumbing Up and a two-man band. Club dates are scheduled coast to coast through August; it's a great show, funny and furious, and should be seen.
Wallinger's ongoing popular neglect, especially in this country, may be logically explicable -- poor promotion, bad timing, illness. (It's also true that, despite his humor and force as a performer, he lacks a megastar's charisma and aura of danger.) But it's still a damn shame. Musically, World Party's retro-flavored rock-pop-funk is finer and more fulfilling, more the product of a unique intelligence and singular set of nerves than anything dreamt of by neo-garage outfits like the Strokes; it's less bloated and brain-clogged than the work of fashionable pop cosmonauts like Oasis and Radiohead. Philosophically, Wallinger is an ironic peacenik, tree-hugging spiritualist, practical mystic, and humble cynic. He's as likely to shout an obscenity as espouse cosmic oneness, and he enjoys yanking the chain on liberal and conservative cant alike.
Our mainstream can use his musicality, his depth, his sense. Recent high-profile pop protest has been a mixed bag at best, proving yet again that it's not enough to mean well, you have to do well. (I mean well; where's my record deal?) Living with War is among Neil Young's worst albums -- so cloddish and yelping and bullet-brained it couldn't justly be called one-dimensional. Bruce Springsteen's obliquely protesty We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions is raucous, jovial, and as bottom-line dull as we've come to expect from him. But Pearl Jam, with their eponymous 10th album, have not only tackled the war and a few of its human realities directly, they've revitalized themselves musically -- lifted themselves from ever-thickening sloughs of self-seriousness with songs that are pop-terse and garage-tough. Meanwhile the Dixie Chicks outclass the barrel-chested rock gods with Taking the Long Way, an album of humor, melodicism, and sideways commentary on their recent Bush-related adventures.
But no socially-conscious music of the past decade has made me feel as engaged with the world as Wallinger's. No pop product has so touched me with a sense of what would be lost if the fascists -- bureaucratic and theocratic alike -- finally, fully took over; if all the protests failed, and all the voices died. No music has made me care about human society -- as separate from life in general, or our world in the abstract -- as Wallinger's has.
Dumbing Up is his strongest collection since Goodbye Jumbo -- something one hesitated to say back in 2001. But now the two weakest songs are gone, to be replaced with two of the finest Wallinger has ever done (“Til I Got You” and “I Thought You Were a Spy”). Anyone schooled in the canon of '60s pop -- Beatles, Motown, Dylan, Sly Stone, Beach Boys -- will recognize voices, guitar lines, production atmospheres. But Wallinger is less an emulator of these lines than their natural exponent: If he often sounds vaguely like someone else, he never stops sounding like himself.
His knack is for the grace note that echoes decades of pop history while falling on the ear as something unprecedented. There's a moment in “I Thought You Were a Spy” when Wallinger's vocal recedes and the song is released into a plush cloudbank of sound and melody, and a country-sweetened guitar figure arches over the chords like streaks of silver in the sky. It's heaven: Your heart opens, you feel joy and terror, and you surrender yourself to pop music all over again. Wallinger has reinvented that moment dozens of times in his career -- that hook, that lick, that magic window and glimpse of the infinite. His gift is that great; his music, at its best, that beautiful and that painful.
“Always on My Mind” is not the finest song on Dumbing Up, but it's the song that anyone lucky enough to discover the album will have the hardest time forgetting. It speaks with the supernal clarity of a voice from the past. But from its opening (“Where do you begin to explain the mess / The mess you've made of it”) on down, there is scarcely a line that doesn't seem to speak directly to George W. Bush -- as if, back in the summer of 2001, the song's narrator saw years into the future to foretell the very point our world has, in fact, reached. But this reduces the song; clearly its bad omen encompasses more than our own little span of history. Does it address Bush the specific man, or the human condition of which he is merely the current occupant and representative? Like the best protest music, it does both. Turning its moment into history, making all of history feel like a moment, the song doesn't even know how far it sees -- into the future, or into the past.
But finally, against all hope, it chooses hope. We claim to respect those with a sufficient sense of self to not care about how cool we think they are. But let someone stray too far from cool -- or common sense, or safety zones, or whatever -- and our recoil will be quick. So Wallinger chances a lot as he peaks his eight-minute, album-ending, future-foretelling, world-despairing epic on a long, long litany of peace ‘n' love declamations, a series of Utopian wishes (human respect, Big Love Day, no more corporations or gas stations or egos, yeah right) that even the most ardent erstwhile flower child would cringe at today -- and maybe that person most of all.
But it goes on, this litany, building on itself, believing in itself, until it has pulled you to the point of believing it, and just when you think he may have smoked too many daisy stems in his day, Wallinger pulls it all out. Wins every bet, redeems every chance, fulfills every faith. He climaxes the epic with a chilling and exultant choral orgasm on a single word: the key word of the age, the word our world is fighting over, the only word that matters. It's among the highest moments I've experienced in art or in life, and each time it comes, a shudder passes over that part of the earth I feel blessed to occupy.
What is the word? Find out for yourself. I'm not telling.
Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (Harvard).