Album of the Week, October 12: The Naked Shakespeare by Peter Blegvad

BlegvadNakedPeter Blegvad was born in New York City and raised in Connecticut. When he was 14, his family moved to England, where he attended St. Christopher School. He played in a number of bands, usually alongside Anthony Moore. When Moore moved to Hamburg after their graduation, he asked Blegvad to join him there to form a new band. The pair hooked up with vocalist Dagmar Krause, forming the avant-cabaret / naive rock unit Slapp Happy. After two-and-a-half albums as a trio, they merged with art rockers Henry Cow for two discs. Blegvad and Moore felt increasingly alienated from the combo’s direction and went their own ways. His next project found him writing literate, intricate lyrics to go with music written by former Henry Cow bassist John Greaves. The resulting art-rock concept, 1977’s Kew. Rhone. was credited to the two men and vocalist Lisa Herman. Blegvad then turned focus to his successful cartooning career while occasionally appearing on other people’s recordings. Finally, in 1982, he entered the studio with friend Andy Partridge (of XTC) as producer and created his first proper solo disc, the highlight of his varied career.

Title The Naked Shakespeare
Act Peter Blegvad
Label Virgin Release Date 1983
Producer Andy Partridge (Dave Stewart, track one)
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. How Beautiful You Are
  2. Weird Monkeys
  3. Naked Shakespeare
  4. Irma
  5. Like A Baby
  6. Powers In the Air
  7. You Can’t Miss It
  8. Karen
  9. Vermont
  10. Lonely Too
  11. Blue Eyed William
  12. First Blow Struck
  13. Major Minor [bonus track]

Whether writing songs solo or collaborating with Moore or Greaves, the common thread through Blegvad’s work is a literate lyrical approach filtered through dark whimsy, paired with music either deceptively simple or directly intricate. The Naked Shakespeare distills this approach, showing off his skill for creating great pop songs with bite, smarts, and frequently a sense of fun. Rather than the simple cabaret sounds or dense art rock of his previous collaborations, this disc is based on very 1983 soundscapes, with smart guitar leads, direct rhythm sections, and evocative synth work. Besides Blegvad, Greaves and Partridge, drummer Anton Fier (Golden Palominos) and keyboard/synth wizard David Lord appear on most tracks, forming a strong in-studio band that gives a cohesive feel to the whole enterprise.

Things kick off with the haunting How Beautiful You Are, composed with Greaves. It’s a powerful postapocalyptic love song, filled with eerie background noises and dark musical spaces. It features a strong vocal from Blegvad, who up to now had seldom sung (and only occasionally spoken) his own words on record. The carefully crafted track is one of his finest and welcomes the listener to Blegvad’s curious world perfectly.

The songs vary from the dark to the cryptic to the whimsical, and the sequencing makes the most of the variety. Weird Monkeys is a darkly bemused look at the modern human race, balding primates who “squat before their boxes” to gain information and entertainment. Somehow Blegvad manages to skewer and celebrate humanity all in one witty package. The title track strikes a middle ground, and elliptical story about the creative process. Blegvad turns in another charming vocal, this time quiet and wistful. Up next is a nightmare song, the dark Irma, also composed with Greaves. The soundscapes are barren and the vocals are detached, creating a sense of menace that matches the grim tale. The fact that the song’s title character appears only as an object and victim is a dark twist that makes the inertial dream all the more gripping.

Like A Baby, the last Greaves collaboration on the disc, is sub-titled “an exploded pop song,” an apt description of much of Blegvad’s work. It’s a curious, stream-of-consciousness narrative that Blegvad intones over a brief, surprising set of musical moments, serving as a good palate cleanser after the dark Irma. On Powers In the Air, the singer returns to forces outside his control, seeming intent to challenge them despite their intensity. It harkens back to his Slapp Happy work with a nice modern pop framework. You Can’t Miss It is a charming, brief existentialist meditation, a fine moment in the grand mix.

Blegvad resurrects an old Slapp Happy demo with an updated version of Karen, a tale of doomed love. It’s the closest to Top 40 territory he ever gets, and the subversive pop works very well indeed. In a just world, this would have been a hit somewhere. Vermont is another literate meditation, exploring chance and fate. What could be ponderous is instead inspiring, brightened by the musical setting and a wonderfully inquisitive vocal tone. Blegvad flirts with classic pop again in Lonely Too, a song of romantic yearning and isolation. The fact that his loneliness is captured in a strange dream about Ezra Pound turns it on its head in a delightfully Blegvad way.

Another Slapp Happy track returns with Blue-Eyed William, originally sung by Dagmar Krause. Her vocal was eerie and detached, creating a mysterious feel. Blegvad’s intonation is more direct and heavy, creating a sense of menace rather than mystery which works to showcase the versatility of a good song. The wrap-up is a grim, ultimately optimistic epic. First Blow Struck would fit on a Henry Cow or Greaves collaboration but is more streamlined. Majestic and oddly compelling, it makes a fine wrap-up to this wonderful adventure. The CD release features a quirky coda. Major Minor was the B-side of the single from Blegvad’s next album, but it fits well on The Naked Shakespeare. A great bit of wordplay and romantic misadventure, it actually wraps up the album even better than the original closer, providing a wink and a bow as the minstrel leaves the stage.

FURTHER LISTENING: Peter Blegvad’s musical career is a set of collaborations and long breaks punctuated by a handful of solid albums. The collaborations tend toward the art/prog side of his work; they’re great for what they are and always interesting, but generally not high on my listening list. An exception is his one disc as a “member” of the Golden Palominos, Blast of Silence, in which the ever-changing lineup — including Matthew Sweet, Don Dixon, and T Bone Burnett in this case — gives him a nice backdrop for some solid songs.

After Shakespeare, he released the similar Knights Like Us, which has some great moments but is neither as adventurous nor as cohesive. Downtime is a set of experiments, demos, and oddities that has its lovely moments. From there, his occasional solo albums are more stripped-down, almost folky affairs that feature continued smart lyrics and a fun sense of melody. The highlights are the wonderful King Strut, possibly his strongest set of songs but less diverse than Shakespeare, and Just Woke Up. Always willing to reinvent his own songs, Blegvad also created a sort of unplugged greatest hits album, Choices Under Pressure, a good overview of his songs that pushes the great lyrical content to the fore.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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