If Terence Trent D'Arby's career offers one lesson, it's this: record a top-notch album, be hailed as a quickly rising star, feed the press large doses of outlandish self-aggrandizement, fall headlong into the sophomore slump, bruise hard, hole up for four years, and finally re-emerge with another top-notch album. Followed to a T -- or a TTD, as the case may be -- this trajectory works wonders, tempering egomania with shades of pathos and recasting past brashness as unappreciated brilliance. Perhaps this recalibration explains the unequivocally positive critical consensus that has greeted D'Arby's third LP, Symphony or Damn. Or perhaps Terence really was a genius all along.
The son of a Pentecostal minister, the Manhattan-born D'Arby joined the U.S. Army in his early twenties and went AWOL just a few years later, trading in his bars for the equivocal stardom of anonymous Euro-funk outfits. His blossoming career led him to London, where his demos were impressive enough to net him a record deal, and he burst upon the British pop scene with 1986's Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D'Arby.
Despite a rush to crown him as the next Prince, D'Arby's powerful voice and rather conservative compositional habits allied him not with the eclectic Minneapolis Genius, but rather with unadulterated American soul, the twin magics of Motown and Memphis. Full of the ingratiating energy of pastiche -- immediately apparent influences included Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, James Brown, Al Green, and Stevie Wonder -- Hardline yielded two big hits, "If You Let Me Stay" and "Wishing Well," and even the songs that didn't chart displayed a powerful, and powerfully focused, talent. From the buttery "Let's Go Forward" to the Baby Popcorn jam "Rain," from the bluesy "Seven More Days" to the incendiary cover of Smokey Robinson's "Who's Loving You" (which matched Michael Jackson's astral 1973 version note-for-note), Terence planted his flag in territory that had lain fallow for almost two decades, and he harvested big.
Unfortunately that LP wasn't the only place Terence opened his mouth. When reporters came to speak to him, he spoke back, hemorrhaging arrogance and indiscretion. Whether offhandedly proclaiming, "I'm a genius. Point-fucking-blank" or otherwise blowing his own horn, the rising young star betrayed a self-concept as swollen as a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade float.
D'Arby has since said that he knew the difficulties faced by new artists, and that his only intention was to surround his debut with productive controversy. The strategy worked, helping him to sell more than eight million albums worldwide. But when it came time to record his follow-up, D'Arby was unable to escape his own overblown rhetoric. Neither Fish Nor Flesh, released in 1989 and saddled with the tragic subtitle -- Declaration of Love, Hope, and Faith, kicked off with a wobbly spoken-word introduction ("To an outside world I will not be defined...I am neither fish nor flesh") from which it never recovered. Despite a confident balance of solid funk-rock cuts ("Attracted to You," "This Side of Love") and ethereal, almost unearthly, ballads ("I Have Faith in These Desolate Times" and "To Love Someone Deeply Is to Love Someone Softly," which no less an authority than Luther Vandross has defended in print as a romantic masterpiece), the album sank like a stone, leaving D'Arby with his ambitious pants down, a would-be shaman who tried to channel Byron and got Rod McKuen instead. Neither fish nor flesh? How about flounder?
Unable to bluff his way through abject failure, Terence simply vanished from view. Which brings us right up to the Nineties, and to Symphony or Damn, the sprawling magnum opus that both marks a heartening return to form and provides indisputable proof that D'Arby lives and breathes for quirky puffery. Recorded in his new L.A. home studio -- named, with typical crypto-pomp, Hummingbird Monosteryo -- Symphony or Damn attempts to blaze new trails, to forgo the stomp-soul of Introducing the Hardline and the prophet-motive of Neither Fish Nor Flesh for a guns-a-blazin', wildly diversified pop attack.
At first this tactic seems about as wise as invading Russia from the west. The introductory atmospherics, drunk on irresponsible overdubbing, suggest that Terence's experimental overdrive has undercut his songwriting talent, and much of the mushy first side of the LP aids and abets this sneaking suspicion. With the atrocious "Neon Messiah" serving as pace car -- no pop act since current tourmate Duran Duran has used nonsense with such impunity -- the first handful of songs vainly rev their puny lyrical engines, overheating under overburdened mixes. "She Kissed Me," the opening track, tries to hide its disabilities with a welter of guitar padding, but no amount of camouflage can cover a limp scribble like "She kissed me there/The way no other girl has kissed me there." (Record company execs might want to consider a new advisory label -- "WARNING: Too many theres, and not enough there there.")
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If the first surprise is how many abysmally bad songs D'Arby has written, the second surprise is how good some of them begin to sound after a while. There are roadkill moments, certainly -- not only "Neon Messiah" and "She Kissed Me," but also the look-Ma-I'm-raucous "Baby Let Me Share Your Love" and the deadly dull "Castilian Blue" -- but some of the other compositions lift themselves up and move on. The wispy, Eastern-flavored "Delicate" plays its serpentine percentages adroitly enough to make you forget how inconsequential it is, and the initially annoying bubblegum of "Penelope Please" bursts open joyfully like a pop pi*ata. Even "Turn the Page," which starts as a directionless and irritating knockoff of "Like a Rolling Stone," uses the Atlantic Horns to launch a potent, brassy second stage.
With resurrections left and right, the stronger compositions begin to sound downright miraculous. "Wet Your Lips," for example, soars by superimposing sleek vocal lines over a meaty guitar riff, and the sinuous "Succumb to Me" ventures deeper into dance-funk than D'Arby has ever traveled.
While Symphony Or Damn never quite shakes its cluttered feel, it proves that plenty of work remains for ambitious pop craftsmen -- that there are still genres to bend and styles to interleave. The album's ballads ("I Still Love You," "Seasons") are uniformly excellent, and dance-floor salvos like "Do You Love Me Like You Say," which marries jittery rhythms to galvanic vocals, confirms that the future of soul lies in lavish technology that doesn't lose sight of raw emotion.
As he hits the road behind the LP, aware that he must recapture his mid-Eighties audience or take his place in the pop-soul graveyard (roll over, Rick James, and tell Cameo the news), D'Arby will no doubt be serving up a carefully organized mix of past hits and present hopes. Not all of the songs on Symphony or Damn can be taken to the stage profitably, and not all of them deserve the honor. At the very least, though, he should make room for the LP's closing ballad, "Let Her Down Easy," the account of a teenage girl gently deflowered by a young musician. Graced by some of D'Arby's most concentrated lyrics -- consider this baroque triplet: "In her strawberry eyes/The way she sees you signifies/That she's susceptible to your velvet lies" -- the song shoots for a tone midway between world-weary and wistful, and hits its target dead-on. Like the other highlights in D'Arby's career, "Let Her Down Easy" provokes an extremely specific reaction -- the urgent desire to punch the artiste in the gut and throttle him for his conceit until he cries "Uncle" (or more likely performs the "Uncle" song-cycle backed by a full orchestra), followed minutes later by the begrudging realization that after all is said and done, there's a certain charm in talent.