❉ This excellent, consciousness-raising album is a triumph, writes Charles Donovan.
“From start to finish, this is exceptional, accomplished songwriting across an array of genres and arrangement styles, including elements of synthpop and prog, with everything throbbing with a propulsive energy and a compelling sense of drama and urgency.”
It would be all too easy to stumble into any number of pitfalls with a concept album about the vagaries of tech and social media and their impacts, for good or ill (mostly ill) on mental health and relationships. In the wrong hands, it could all smack of “back in my day, we played in the park and didn’t lock our front doors” sentimentality and ignorant Luddism, with an acrid side-serving of “won’t someone think of the children?” So a boatload of plaudits to prolific singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist and ‘Save Soho’ founder Tim Arnold for deftly avoiding them with his five-years-in-the-making album Super Connected, a social-commentary work telling several interweaving stories.
The lives of a London family-of-four are aggressively co-opted by the internet (the title-track is sung from the viewpoint of the screen-addicted, bedroom-bound teenage daughter) while a sinister surveillance organisation, Picture Sounds, harvests data in order to target the susceptible with its latest invention – a diabolical piece of wearable tech called the iHead. (Picture Sounds are represented on the album by spoken-word “advert” passages from Stephen Fry and one glorious behemoth of a rock song, The Complete Solution.)
Super Connected is best experienced, if you can, as a live event in which the film is screened while Arnold and other musicians perform the songs (with playback filling out the sound – on the album, Arnold plays at least six instruments in a way that obviously can’t be replicated in person). But the good news is that the music works on its own (as, I imagine, does the film).
The opening track, Start With The Sound, begins sparsely, with Arnold’s agile, muscular voice dancing with itself over a single line of bouncing semi-quavers on guitar. Bit by bit additional instruments enter the soundscape, including Jonathan Hill’s violin playing a beautiful, plaintive counter-melody. It’s a dazzling feat of sound-sculpture reminiscent of Mick Ronson’s work, not so much with David Bowie in the 1970s as with experimental Canadian singer/songwriter, Lisa Dal Bello, in the 1980s on the cult-classic album, Whomanfoursays (1984). Not that there aren’t some certifiably Bowie-esque moments – one of them being the title-track, with its brassy riffs and 1980s-meets-2020s musical architecture.
You Like My Pictures, superficially bright and cheerful, makes the pointed observation that in our online lives we often celebrate the most superficial attributes of those we admire, favouring their pouty, artificially titivated selfies over their creativity or their characters (“You don’t like a real emotion… but you like my pictures!”). In the Super Connected film, the song ends with a fabulous bit of non-verbal acting; Kate Alderton’s character gets an opiate-like high as her photograph accrues like after like after like. Then the interplay of emotions on her face changes as the euphoria cedes to a hollowed-out, deflated, hole-in-the-soul deadness. But shorn of the imagery, the song’s funky vigour and chorus (almost all these songs have hooks that latch on from the first listen) are impelling enough to create a movie in the mind of whoever happens to be hearing it.
In the centre of running order come several big anthems, including The Touch Of A Screen, Start A Conversation and Send More Light, all of them cries from the heart with rousing choruses. Send More Light is particularly heartrending. Perhaps The Touch Of A Screen is the most successful, with its keyboard-tap arpeggios, played on synthesiser, and its poignant strings, though it’s the second two, arranged more like conventional pop ballads, that have the ultimate, killer, sing-a-long refrains.
What’s striking is how the individual parts of this project stand up whether taken on their own or experienced as a gestalt. From start to finish, this is exceptional, accomplished songwriting – most of the tracks sound like the best kind of singles, instantly catchy but never pandering or cloying – across an array of pop genres, produced and arranged like an exquisite sound-bath. The album makes its points in a humorous and deeply human way that never patronises the listener. While no shortage of praise should go to the artist, another name that recurs from track to track is the great Jonathan Noyce, beloved for his work with Jethro Tull, and here credited with ‘sound design’, vintage synths, drum machines (there are also live drummers on the record) and bass.
Super Connected is a whistle-stop tour of song and arrangement styles, including elements of synthpop and prog, with everything – including the ballads – throbbing with a propulsive energy and a compelling sense of drama and urgency. The lyrics are moving and often quite pithy (“Finally everybody’s talking/But they’re talking all at once” is a marvellously succinct comment on social media, as is “I’ve kissed a million but I can’t feel the love”) and every detail is meticulously well-judged, including the pugnacious, martinet-style rap in The Complete Solution.
If Super Connected has an overarching point, it’s that if our online lives are lived at the expense of our offline ones; if we’re excessively enmeshed by the unscrupulous manoeuvres of tech companies, then our real-world connections and aspects of our sanity are at risk. It’s not a new observation, but on this excellent, consciousness-raising album it’s made in ways powerful and idiosyncratic enough that listeners might reconsider how they interact with tech and the internet. I know I will. But even those dismissive of its messages will still enjoy Super Connected for Arnold’s superlative, lustrous prog-pop. There hasn’t been a concept album as pleasing as this since Simon Warner’s Waiting Rooms (1997), a very different, much more arch piece of work of course, but similarly successful in achieving exactly what it set out to do.
❉ Tim Arnold: ‘Super Connected; (TA Music) is out now on DL (£9.99), CD (£15) and vinyl (£25). Order via Bandcamp: https://timarnold.bandcamp.com/album/super-connected
❉ Tim Arnold: https://linktr.ee/timarnold
❉ Charles Donovan is a London-born writer, editor and reissue producer whose work has appeared in Record Collector, Boisdale Life and Sunday Times Magazine. His reissues include Maxayn – Maxayn Reloaded and Rupert Holmes – Songs That Sound Like Movies (both Cherry Red). He can be found at www.charlesdonovan.com and on twitter @CharlieDonovan
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