“Dada is like your hopes: nothing like your paradise: nothing like your idols: nothing like your heroes: nothing like your artists: nothing like your religions: nothing.”
(Francis Picabia, 1879-1953)
“Thought is made in the mouth”
(Tristan Tzara, 1896-1963)
Dadaism is, at the most basic level, a celebration of the absurd, a means by which an artist can ridicule the modern world. While the original movement lasted only around ten years its influence on art, and the wider “pop” culture, has been immense…conceptual art, performance art, photo-montage, op and pop art. It can be found, fleetingly, in pop music from the artwork of Linder Sterling for “Orgasm Addict” by The Buzzcocks through to certain moments in the career of Bowie.
The purest expression of Dadaism in pop music though is surely David Devant and His Spirit Wife. A band who place the absurd front and centre in their work, who celebrate the ridiculousness of the modern and physical worlds, who include elements of pop art, performance art and conceptual art in everything they do and who have fashioned their own Dadaist manifesto through the expressions of The Vessel.
Take the words of Picabia from the start of this article and substitute Dada for David Devant and His Spirit Wife;
David Devant is like your hopes…the hopes we all have for pop music to be fun, confusing, uplifting, for it to say something about our lives.
Nothing like your paradise…in the modern world it appears that paradise is lost and the paradise being offered by the talking heads is repulsive to so many of us. The vision of the sublime being offered by Devant is altogether more appealing and playful.
Nothing like your idols…how very true this is of The Vessel.
Nothing like your heroes…no Wellend haircut or Ben Sherman shirts here.
Nothing like your artists…despite the artistic heart of this performance Devant isn’t the Jack Vettriano that hangs on the walls of bedrooms up and down the country pretending to be art. This is something more challenging, more awkward and, ultimately, better.
Nothing like your religions…their is something of the sublime, or the supernatural, at the heart of all of this but it isn’t holy books and holy men, it is something from within.
Nothing…and yet, at times, everything.
Or maybe it’s a bloke in a wig with a kettle on the stage.
You can decide for yourself.
They return with their first new music since 2004’s “Power Words for Better Living” with “Cut Out and Keep Me” and it is a glorious thing. From the photomontage front cover of The Vessel with a motorway running through his mind to the closing track we are blessed with 12 tracks which remind us of the wonders, delights and thrills of this most peculiar and unique band of artists posing as musicians.
“Cut Out and Keep Me”delivers moments of autobiography, philosophy, surrealism and all coated in beautiful arrangements, classic pop hooks, rock and roll history and a tangible sense that all of this has happened because of kindness. It is rare to find such a blend in the world of pop and it is this rarity that makes David Devant and His Spirit Wife such a precious commodity.
The album begins with “Sublime” and it seems unlikely that a song with this title has been chosen by accident to open up the next phase in the Devant story. Writing in the first or third century Longinus contended that part of what defined the sublime in literature was the idea of “…expression of a great spirit” and the pursuit of “excellence in language”. You can argue I am reading too much into things if you want to…I’m not. Devant has always been about expression and the deployment of excellent language as well as excellence in language. Longinus also made suggestions for the ideal recipients for the sublime in literature which included the notion that such an audience would be refined and cultivated. While there is great joy to be had in joining a throng of parka monkeys loudly braying the words to “Wonderwall” it would be foolish to suggest that this was evidence of a refined or cultivated nature. What The Vessel and company are attempting to do is instil those qualities within their audience through play and melody. Clever innit mate?
Of course their is another way to understand the sublime and that is through its use to define, and explain, the nature of the relationship between humans and God. This isn’t about theistic religions but is, instead, about the mind. Edmund Burke suggested that, where previously only beauty could provide the sort of pleasure that Plato described, ugliness too could be an aesthetically pleasurable quality through its ability to provoke intense emotion. Light and shade. This notion of the sublime, of finding beauty runs through “Cut Out and Keep Me” with references to ghosts, magic, demons, miracles, life, love and more; dark matter, light shining on the surface. Clever innit mate?
“Won’t someone tell me, what the Hell is memory, then come and get me, here I am” croons The Vessel on “Here I Am” which introduces a theme that runs through so much of the bands work…memory, nostalgia, the past. What is interesting about the way in which David Devant and His Spirit Wife play with these notions is the fact that, as The Vessel discussed in a recent interview with me on the Mild Mannered Army podcast, is the fact that memory is, at best, unreliable and, at worst, is nothing more than a construct, created and crafted by our minds to make sense of the senseless. We need a narrative structure that enables us to create a linear interpretation of events, even when those events often don’t occur in that way. Here The Vessel lists things he remembers, woozy, dreamlike, half remembered memories like his mother’s lipstick or the image of his father messing with a dipstick. Strange, funny, peculiar things to remember…but isn’t that the nature of our past? Strange, funny, peculiar. It isn’t just a song about psychological space but of the physical…”Here I Am” but where is here? This is psychogeography in song, what Guy Debord described as “…a total dissolution of boundaries between art and life.” The line between the “real” world and the creative world is blurred…erased.
What is so fascinating about the work of David Devant and His Spirit Wife, what is so intriguing, what is so endearing, what is so magical is their ability to present high art concepts, such heady and weighty intellectual challenges in the trappings of pop. Their are “whoo-hoos”, hand claps, riffs, toe-tapping beats, sing-along choruses, dizzying, thrilling delights and delectations which leave you quite breathless. “Cut Out and Keep Me” is a return to the bands own past, the closest in sound and presentation to “Work, Lovelife, Miscellaneous” of any of their other albums. Songs like the titular “Cut Out and Keep Me”, “Here I Am”, “Rough Magic”, “Sublime” and “Early Worm” are all light on the surface but with darkness lurking in the depths. This is playful for sure, it wouldn’t work if it wasn’t but it is also a collection of songs that offers a treasure trove of wonders for those who want to dive deep enough to find them.