I’ve been asked to preface this review with a disclaimer. As the newest writer for The Progressive Aspect, I’m the only one who doesn’t know Phil Lively (who also writes for this site), and so I was designated the perfect being to review this rather bleak affair. I’ve had the album a week or so, but have never really got around to writing the review. After a week of heading for a fall myself, though, today seemed a good day. As I joked to Phil in a comment on a Facebook post of my “fall”, by reviewing the album when I’m hardly in the best of spirits myself, I’m going for the kill or cure method. Or maybe the Bono method? “Well, tonight, thank god it’s me, instead of Phil…”
The album starts off cheerfully enough, with about ten seconds of birdsong in all its beauty. While the birdsong continues, an industrial keening which has apparently been in the background the whole time becomes more and more apparent, building in volume until another ten seconds later, the song crashes into being. And we are heading for the fall.
I could make comparisons to bands like Nine Inch Nails and Joy Division, and their tortured frontmen, but instead what strikes me more than anything is a similarity to another Phil – Phil Judd of Split Enz, and less famously – among many other bands – Schnell Fenster. Now Phil Lively may well not be familiar with Phil Judd’s short tenure with Split Enz, and it’s even less likely that he is familiar with Schnell Fenster, so I can’t say these are likely inspirations, but nor can I avoid making the comparisons.
Phil was the voice of Split Enz for me. Yes, I loved Tim’s stuff, and yes I loved Neil’s stuff (I’d not have heard of the band at all were it not for the contributions of the Finn brothers), but Phil was the dark creative spirit of the band. Catchy and hooky, sure, but darker and weirder. I just hope Phil Lively is not as troubled mentally as bi-polar suffering Phil Judd, who has described much of his musical output as making him miserable and being an ugly, unhappy, unpleasant experience. (“I can bring myself to listen to Mental Notes still, about once a decade. I have to work myself up, but I still keep in touch with that one. There are some songs on that album I still like”.)
Mental Notes is my favourite Enz album, but even I can admit to it being a disconcerting listen. For example, the lyric “I think I’ll get on back home to my mother” from Under the Wheel may look innocuous enough, but the way it is sung sounds rather Norman Bates. Phil Lively embodies this same disconcerting tone with his lyrics. And I love it, just as much as I love Phil Judd.
But this is not a review of Phil Judd. It’s a review of Phil Lively, and a haunting and personal concept album of things falling apart, alternating between industrial and ambient, which somehow manages to be as beautiful as it is bleak. There’s very little in this sort of depressing vein I really listen to (Nine Inch Nails being an obvious exception) as it can be just too uncomfortable. Like NIN, Phil Lively manages to make brooding disquiet and brutal discomfort sound soothing, and almost pretty at times.
So, back to Heading for a Fall, where I was several paragraphs ago. As the opening track, it was obviously the first song I heard. And I loved it – I loved it all. I loved the crashing drums, and then the sudden falling away. I loved the quietly spoken, almost rapped, vocals. And I really loved the way Phil uses dynamic tension and counterpoint. It’s used to even more effect in the following song, What’s Wrong With Me?. Check out the change approximately halfway through; it hits hard, and it’s a joy to hear every time.
Head in Hands is the first track of a particularly enjoyable sequence. It’s a rather restrained affair, before the most upbeat track yet, No More Nails, bursts into being. (By upbeat I do not, of course, mean happy. There is no happy.) Deportment follows, and perhaps exemplifies best the juxtaposition of Nine Inch Nails and Phil Judd I hear throughout the album, with the off-kilter keyboards on this track only exacerbating the comparison – reminding me in turns of Eddie Rayner in Split Enz, or Mike Garson in Nine Inch Nails. Deportment is an obvious centrepiece for the album, and it fulfils the role perfectly. It’s an incredibly gorgeous song, the fragile beauty of the music almost completely belying the agony and sadness of the lyrics. The sequence ends with Hands in Head – the rather brilliant alter-ego of Head in Hands, with recognisable motifs from the prior track, but in an altogether more bombastic fashion.
It Doesn’t Matter is perhaps the only moment of respite from the otherwise almost complete misery. It’s remarkably bright and cheery for all its apathy, and even sounds sufficiently commercial enough to be played on the radio. Never Knew provides a similarly ambivalent and ambiguous song to end the album.
There is an incredible variety of sound and tone in this album. I did write about every song, and then realised just how long this review was. When I read back, and realised some editing was definitely in order, it also made me recognise how wrong I was with my initial concerns. I was worried when I started listening, that as much as I liked the opening track, it would be song after song of the same. However, the different musical moods, even without listening to the lyrics, not only retain interest throughout, they also perfectly portray the fall of the title, and how the protagonist feels after the fall. I hesitate to use the word resolution, because it’s more resignation, and yet, somehow, out of a thoroughly miserable story, Phil Lively has created an extremely beautiful album. It deserves to be heard. I hope it is.
01. Heading For a Fall (3:42)
02. What’s Wrong With Me? (3:43)
03. Before Black (6:55)
04. Head in Hands (4:15)
05. No More Nails (3:41)
06. Deportment (5:05)
07. Hands in Head (4:03)
08. It Doesn’t Matter (4:48)
09. The Cure (4:02)
10. Never Knew (3:59)
Total Time – 46:13
Phil Lively – Vocals, Chapman Stick Railboard (10-string RMR), Electric Guitar, 4- & 5-string Bass, Drum & Keyboard Sequencing
Jack Lively – Additional Drum Sequencing (on No More Nails)
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 2nd February 2020
Phil Lively – Facebook | Bandcamp