A breakdown forced Bill Ryder-Jones to quit music at 25, but he's back with a brilliantly understated new solo album. By Dave Faulkner.
Bill Ryder-Jones’s ‘West Kirby County Primary’
In this story
It’s your secrets that I want today
The singer’s voice is soothing as he continues:
And it’s senseless setting your defence
’Cause I always get my own way in the end
The ardour could be seen as charming, until the lyrics take on a darker, obsessive demeanour:
You can pretend you don’t care
But when I’m watching you know that I’m there
I seen you brushing your hair
As if you didn’t want me to stare
Just look at the things that you’re wearing
And tell me you don’t love me watching
The languid music is redolent of The Velvet Underground circa Loaded, and it’s wrapped innocently around these discomfiting lyrics, like an innocuous cone shell that conceals inside its poisonous barb.
“Tell Me You Don’t Love Me Watching” is the opening track of West Kirby County Primary, Bill Ryder-Jones’s latest album and his third as a solo artist. West Kirby is the English town where Ryder-Jones grew up and has always lived, and it remains the wellspring of his inspiration. Situated on the Wirral Peninsula, known locally as The Wirral, it is included in the Liverpool City Region, though that storied city lies 20 kilometres away, beyond the River Mersey to the east.
Closer to home, Birkenhead is a down-at-heel shipbuilding town with a tough reputation and a nightlife to match. On “Two to Birkenhead”, Ryder-Jones describes a woeful night out for a couple of hapless pleasure-seekers, whose “desperate times call for desperate pleasures”. Musically, the song starts in rousing fashion, with guitars and drums whirling together like a melodic blend of Pavement and The Pixies, before suddenly dropping to an almost-whispered verse. The hubbub soon returns as the song’s story progresses. “Two to Birkenhead” was the first single taken from this album and its accompanying video was filmed around West Kirby, including in the Ryder-Jones family home, which now houses Bill’s studio in what was once his bedroom.
West Kirby County Primary follows If… (released in 2011) and A Bad Wind Blows in My Heart (2013). In that time, Ryder-Jones has also produced a number of albums by other Wirral artists and composed the soundtracks for several short films as well the feature-length film Piggy (2012). That’s a fairly respectable output for any 32-year-old, but in fact all of this has been part of a late-career resurgence.
Ryder-Jones was 13 when he and some Wirral friends formed a guitar band in the mid-’90s, eventually calling themselves The Coral. By the time he had turned 16, The Coral had a record contract, and the next six years of Ryder-Jones’s life became increasingly turbulent. One day after it was released, The Coral’s self-titled debut album was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize and it eventually went top 5 in the British charts. Its follow-up, Magic and Medicine, made it all the way to No. 1, while their third album, The Invisible Invasion, entered the charts at No. 3. The Coral’s rise had been meteoric but, just like a meteor, Ryder-Jones felt himself being consumed by fame’s incandescence. Success came at a huge psychic price. A mental collapse forced him to take a rest from the band for 12 months and, after rejoining them, the same crippling anxieties returned. He only managed to last another 18 months. At 25, Ryder-Jones quit The Coral forever and his music career appeared to be over.
Ryder-Jones has been very candid in interviews about his ongoing mental health issues and a couple of songs on the new album deal directly with traumatic episodes that affected him profoundly. Track four here, “Daniel”, talks about the death of his older brother, when Ryder-Jones was just seven. The song is sung from the perspective of two bereaved parents, struggling to hold their marriage together after the loss of a young child, perhaps as a result of drowning:
When we lost our little boy
We tried so hard to stay together
Daniel, Daniel, Daniel belongs to the ocean
In a number of interviews, Ryder-Jones has discussed the impact the loss had on him growing up. “Yeah, that’s a true story,” he tells me. “Daniel was my big brother who passed away when I was seven, so the song’s written from the point of view of our parents, like a shared conscious thought that they must have been having, the way I’m seeing it.” Many people ascribed Bill’s later mental health issues to this pivotal event. Ryder-Jones himself must also feel there is a connection, because “Daniel” concludes with a conversation between himself and his doctors:
It’s just a little trick to stop you feeling blue
If you take this shit you might not feel so sick,
If you take the pills you might not feel so ill
Let’s make it easier for you, Bill
It’s a truly amazing song. His eloquent lyrics can be very sharp at times but there is often a wry humour at play underneath, something that can be traced back to his Northern heritage. Self-deprecation and taking the piss are valued traits on The Wirral.
This is a solo album in much more than name. Ryder-Jones performed and recorded nearly all of it himself, mostly within the confines of the bedroom studio at his mother’s house. His abilities as a guitarist have been praised by Noel Gallagher among others, but there is a parsimonious economy about his playing that matches his understated songwriting: nothing flashy; just simple, melodic lines forming an inextricable part of the architecture of the music rather than decorative afterthoughts. He is also the drummer on most of the tracks and in this he was inspired by a famous Liverpudlian. “I just love Ringo. Like, how tasteful he was,” he told me. “I love how interesting his drum patterns are without ever really getting in the way.” Ryder-Jones can also play trumpet, violin, and keyboards, though he employs only the latter on this album. “Violin was my first instrument,” he says, “but, other than the guitar, I don’t really play anything to any real standard, you know? But I can get a semi-pleasant sound out of most instruments.” He is clearly blessed with a prodigious talent, but for me his greatest gift is his unerring sense of restraint.
One of the album’s many highlights is its second-last track, “Satellites”, where Ryder-Jones discusses a particularly dark time in his life. After quitting The Coral, he endured debilitating bouts of depression mingled with agoraphobia. Back living with his parents, he found it impossible to walk any further from home than to the nearest lamppost. He also suffered schizophrenic episodes of dissociative identity disorder, the worst being a three-week period in which he was convinced that nothing in the universe was real and that he was trapped in a Matrix-like computer simulation. His girlfriend at the time was Emma Leatherbarrow, an artist who performs under the name MiNNETONKA, and only Emma was able to penetrate his mania and guide him away from this nightmarish black hole. She challenged his delusion with the notion that even this universal computer program had to be running on a real-world machine somewhere. This simple concept turned out to be the lifeline that pointed his way back towards reality, and Ryder-Jones clung to it desperately:
I got lost in myself
And time got lost as well
But safety is the thought
That something somewhere
Must be happening
As he says now: “It [gave me] something to latch onto and that hope … is the hardest thing to get, and everything follows suit, you know?” He can even laugh about it now: “She quite cleverly reasoned with me, ’cause obviously when someone’s quite raving mad you’re best not trying to, like, argue with them.” “Satellites” is a turbulent sprawl of distorted guitars that rises and ebbs like the rolling waves of madness its author experienced. Though it is nearly six minutes long, the epic song still sounds too short to me. In fact, I feel the same way about the entire album. The record clocks in at a healthy 42 minutes but I often find myself compelled to play it through several times in a row. Music this good is something to be cherished.
I could write enthusiastically about each and every song on West Kirby County Primary but it would be truly remiss of me not to mention two other standout tracks, “Wild Roses” and “Seabirds”. Both were written with, and for, MiNNETONKA, but Ryder-Jones snatched them back for himself afterwards. The former lovers remain close friends and are frequent musical collaborators. “[Emma] gives me stick about it all the time,” he laughs, “but me and her, we’ve written some fucking great songs together and I’ve wanted to keep most of ’em so, you can’t have it all yer own way, can ya?” After hearing the chorus Ryder-Jones came up with for “Wild Roses”, it’s easy to understand why he would reclaim it for himself. A song this majestic is worth fighting over.
“Seabirds” closes the album and it is another sombre reflection on the fraught power struggles that are manifest between men and women. With “Tell Me You Don’t Love Me Watching” having opened proceedings, it is clear that Ryder-Jones wants to bookend his album with songs about control, secrets and intimacy. This time, however, the balance of power is firmly held by the female partner and rather than being victimised by male obsession, as in the opener, this time it is she who is exploiting her lover’s devotion, stringing him along without any sign of commitment. “Seabirds” finishes the album on a plaintive note, with a yearning for resolution unfulfilled. Reflecting more on “Tell Me You Don’t Love Me Watching”, I wonder if the lyrics could also be a metaphor for the way Ryder-Jones himself feels being subjected to the demanding, intrusive gaze of his audience. Baring your soul for a living isn’t easy, especially for a man of his introspection.
On West Kirby County Primary, some secrets are stolen while others remain tightly held. Overall, though, Bill Ryder-Jones doesn’t hold back anything, marrying troubling, deeply personal subject matter to breathtakingly beautiful music, complemented always by his perfectly weighted, sensitive arrangements. This easily rates as one of the albums of the year.
Sydney Opera House, until December 19
FESTIVAL Supanova Pop Culture Expo
Adelaide Showground, November 20-22
VISUAL ART Treasure Ships: Art in the Age of Spices
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until January 31, 2016
MUSIC Melbourne Music Week
Various venues, Melbourne, until November 20
MUSIC A Tribute to Jesse Younan
The Wesley Anne, Melbourne, November 14
VISUAL ART Anne Ferran: Shadow Land
Newcastle Gallery of Art, until November 15
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 14, 2015 as "The quality of Mersey".
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