❉ Babybird’s descriptions of love as gnawing, uncomfortable, visceral and triumphant, show him at his most interesting.
To the uninitiated, Babybird were a ‘90s flash in the pan. But as Jay Bea discovers with the latest release from prolific front man and songwriter Stephen Jones, so much more of substance has followed in the wake of their popular hits.
There’s a song that’s well-known by many who came of age in the 90s; a breakout hit for an indie artist at a time when so many bands broke the back of the charts and it felt like the tide was turning away from pure pop. That song, the 500,000-selling You’re Gorgeous by Babybird, would reluctantly earn a place on the 5-CD compilation soundtrack of my golden years; it’s too tied to hazy, sweaty, drunken student union memories not to be. But how I grew to despise that song as it was overplayed and made mainstream – even though I was one of the people who knew that the lyrics were dark, disturbing and interesting; a not-entirely-suited accompaniment to romance despite the cute chorus.
I am sorry-not-sorry for focusing my introduction on a song not on the album I’m reviewing here, Babybird’s latest release King of Nothing. But I do it in part to get that inevitable mention out of the way and also to make a point. Yes, YG is Stephen Jones’s most successful song. Yes, it earned him award nominations and plaudits and some money along the way. But it is certainly not the sum of his or Babybird’s parts. Anyone who thought Babybird died mid-air simply because they stopped reaching the Top 10 singles chart would be entirely wrong.
Babybird encountered the familiar music industry trajectory I’ve written about here before: hard-working and interesting artist forges niche, gains following, is sniffed out and courted by a significant label, milked for a few big hits, the end (of commerciality). Jones may ultimately have been in a stronger position creatively than many of his contemporaries to go back to going it alone after that period. He already had hundreds of songs to his name at that point. Hundreds more have followed. While ploughing the indie furrow again, Jones caught the attention of actor Johnny Depp when he launched a record label in 2009; Depp ended up working on two songs and directing the video for Unloveable. Since streaming has expanded, in the past 10 years Jones/Babybird have released close to 130 albums (with Jones retaining full control of this output, and now filling up considerable megabytes over on Bandcamp). It’s easy to see the title of his 2006 album, Between my ears is nothing but music, as declaration of a compulsion.
Fans of Babybird will recognise several tracks on this latest collection, some gathered from past releases I Miss Myself and KONpilation, both from 2017, and last year’s Happy Stupid Nothing. Part of the artistic challenge for Jones must be the act of packaging and repackaging songs in different orders, evoking different mood patterns, and seeing what happens as a result. Certainly the 13 tracks on King of Nothing take the listener on a route around the human condition, mapping mournful and uplifting moments as well as the caustic and the futile. Singing what’s on his mind is what Jones is known, and I daresay, loved for. Gig crowds have often been on the receiving end of his sharp tongue (and some, such as the paparazzi there just in the hope of seeing Depp drop by, likely deserved it).
In the tradition of pensmiths with their origins in Sheffield, Jones is drawn to telling a good yarn in melody, and he usually gives his song titles as much colour as the content (previous examples of note have included Hiding from dad and I’ve muted the screaming). On King of Nothing, there’s no such intrigue in any of the titles, but once you delve in it’s worth the experience nonetheless.
On several songs, Jones reflects on the way person and place collide to create identity, and the specific duality of having planted roots in more than one place. In London, I Love You, he contrarily declares, ‘I moved to the north of England where my mind should have cleared/But when I looked out across the countryside something died’, and ‘With all the people crammed on the Tube/You look out the window and all you see is you/ Oh, London, how I hate you. Oh London, how I miss you.’ It’s a naked and arresting opening track, with the vocal front and centre, accompanied for the most part by piano and an economical guitar line; both this and track two, Feel, remind me of Cherry Ghost, and the vocals of Simon Aldred. At other times Jones’s voice recalls shades of Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch.
Jones’s descriptions of love as gnawing, uncomfortable, visceral and sometimes triumphant, show him at his most interesting – on Feel, for example: ‘You’re a bomb in my heart, love splattered in the air/And all across the sidewalk and colouring the sky. I look into the sun knowing it’s too bright, and I’m blinded for a second/but it feels like my whole life’. By comparison, Three Little Words was the song that didn’t work for me – the lyrics didn’t go much further than ‘Just got these three little words but I can’t stretch them out’, and I wondered if I was missing a sarcastic joke about lazy love song-writing. Ditto the low-key cover of Daft Punk and Pharrell’s Get Lucky. If the slowed down, anaesthetised take was another humorous play on a trope (tired and getting lucky in a long-term relationship, rather than during an exciting fling?), I think I missed the point.
These two tracks aside, the album impressed me. My tracks on regular repeat are the upbeat numbers: King of Nothing, Demons and The Greatest Thing in particular. The Greatest Thing’s bouncing tune and layered guitars put me right back on a happy ‘90s dancefloor and gave up my favourite lyric on the album: ‘I became a little part of you, like a golden tooth’.
Old car well illustrates Jones’s ability to set the listener off-kilter, sounding like a cute and folksy ditty, while chiming ‘Let’s get in the old car, that’ll stop the crying/No floor where the brakes were/Let’s just keep on driving. When we find a place we want to spend our lives in/Let’s set the car on fire and walk into the sea’.
Babybird are a band at their best when catchy guitars rub up against lyrics pulled from a troubled place. King of Nothing drives forward musically, purposefully, yet the character at its heart is broken: ‘Lost my life when I was 23, ever since then I’ve been an emotional zombie, I’m not sure I’ll get my time back again/ And I got messed up took the wrong decisions, now my throne’s a bench and the park’s my kingdom.’ I hope that the characters Jones draws are fundamentally fictional, given that their pain is often writ large. But I wonder where the inspiration comes from, where in Demons he sings so casually and playfully, ‘Demons, demons demons , God didn’t make me this way/ Demons, demons demons, they’re making this a hell of a day’. Jones makes you work a bit harder as the listener, scratching at the glossy surface to reveal the guts of life underneath. We don’t want to know about the guts, but we must. And doesn’t the unpleasant truth make us love life’s uplifting moments even more as a result?
The greatest thing
King of Nothing
London, I Love You
❉ Babybird: ‘King Of Nothing’ was released 22 September 2020. Get the digital download via Babybird’s Bandcamp page, RRP £7.99.
❉ Jay Bea is a social historian and writer, blogging and (still) gigging around the outer edges of London. Her novel set during the Britpop era may see the light of day in 2021. Her social and cultural history website and podcast, 1,000 Londons, is in development. Twitter: @London_and_East Instagram: @eeastlondonista. © Jay Bea