Alan Wilkes’ fourteenth album since making his solo debut back in 2001, Artists Only is a concept album as such from Bromsgrove’s answer to Ray Davies in that all the tracks are about or inspired by artists, expanding on an idea first explored on 2016’s Down The Bright Stream and the song ‘Anthony Gormley’. Stylistically embracing hard rock, funk, folk and pastoral pop with Wilkes playing everything except the drums, it kicks off with the twangsome guitar riff intro to ‘A Bigger Splash’, a reference to David Hockey’s 1967 painting of a California swimming pool, the song concerning a poster of the print that connects a now separated couple with the lyrics spanning San Francisco and the River Severn with namechecks for Neil, Joni, the Grateful Dead and, for trivia buffs, independent music store Amoeba Records, the track itself a cocktail of Young and Bowie.
A rockier, slightly grungey, note is struck with ‘Rothko’, an evocation of the abstract expressionist work of Latvian born Mark Rothko and his celebrated overpowering colour field paintings that provoked perceptional and emotional responses, or, as the song has it, “you have to let the colour permeate/The inner workings of the brain”.
A more delicate work with a descending melody built on acoustic guitar filigrees and warm keyboards, ‘Pathetic Lament’ bring a courtly neo-classical feel to a song of an impossible love (“Our dreams will never come true/Whatever is said/Whatever we do/Love’s just a cold calling card”), switching to another, teenage, heartbreak cast in the grinding riffs of Heavy Metal, a song set in the late 70s/early 80s and stuffed with parochial references to Wolverhampton, the 144 bus route from Worcester to Birmingham, British Leyland, forgotten nightspots the BYO an Holy Cross pub, our hero’s hopes of romance unable to bridge the gap between his love for Diamond Head and hers for the Wonder Stuff.
It returns to the art world for more echoey guitar and the shadowy eeriness of ‘Jack The Dripper’, the title referring to Time’s nicknaming of Jackson Pollock after his technique of pouring or splashing paint on to horizontal surfaces, to be followed by another creative maverick with the throbbing staccato bass rifffery and propulsive surf rock drive of ‘Francis Bacon’, the Irish-born, Soho-based existentialist figurative artist whose raw and powerful work included paintings of crucifixions and popes (the lyric specifically alludes to his 1953 Study of Pope Innocent X with its Nazi imagery), the track nodding to his friendships with Jeffrey Bernard and Damien Hurst, his arrest for possession following a lover’s tiff with George Dyer and his death in Madrid.
Departing from the core theme and framed as a moody, noirish ballad of piano notes, walking drum beats and sparse, twangy guitar, ‘A Man And His Shadow’ is a lockdown inspired track (“At home on the front step clapping to be kind”) infused with paranoia (“not sure who’s good cop not sure who’s bad/When they both have a look, have a look of your Dad”), isolation and its vision of the new apocalypse (“The bushes are burning the trees have all died/There’s a room in my house where nothing survives”).
The final track named for an artist is the funky grooves of ‘Grayson’ (as in ceramics potter Perry), a celebration of the misfits and outsiders who “remodel re make reconfigure” that slips in references to Damien Hurst, Andy Warhol (“Drella, the Pittsburgh Cinderella”) and Mo Tucker of the Velvet Underground.
The nod to Warhol and The Velvets is echoed in the subsequent ‘Fifteen Minutes’ (this time it’s Nico), a swipe at a creative laziness and plagiarism engendered by the rise of technology facilitated reproduction in place of original spark (“Just show me the work and I’ll copy and paste/I don’t want you to get all covered in paint”) and the adulation of the recycled old story (“Just choose an image help yourself/Off the jpeg off the shelf”) while the new wave seems still far out at sea.
Perhaps sustaining that thought, it ends with the poppy Pulp-bounce of ‘Perfect Song’ (“when you first hear it/The melody feels brand new and/Every line of it rings true/No matter if you’ve already heard /Every nuance every word”) and how we become jaded and look for another thrill (“after a very short while/The perfect song it seems too slow/You discover another on the radio”); a number both about the need to keep reinventing but (with a sly allusion to Joy Division’s classic) also a metaphor for relationships as “life imitates art/Here we are back at the start/Of my perfect song” as we strive for the perhaps unobtainable.
The Bandcamp download of Artists Only comes with a bonus track, ‘Fine Art’, a Pulp-like swaggery rock quasi-autobiographical number about a musician who falls for a fine art student, loses her to a Dutch photographer but, having put her into a song, is reunited many years later, marrying and riding off into the sunset. The lyric mentions Mr Shadrack, Vinny’s label of course named after the funeral directors in Billy Liar, putting another spin on the song.
Once again, this album reinforces the claim for Wilkes (and his alter ego) as one of the finest and most individual and literate voices in contemporary English music, a writer with an eye for the small detail as well as the big picture. “We all need a little more art in our life”, he sings. This is most definitely one to add to your collection.
Artist’s website: www.vinnypeculiar.com
‘Heavy Metal’ – live: