Half in love with easeful death

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The only way to absorb A Life Less Lived: The Goth Box is to wallow in it. Goth music, a form of morose, theatrical, self-absorbed punk, flourished in Britain in the 1980s. A bastardised version still skulks through American teenagerdom, where it regularly takes the blame for school shootings. Listeners of a certain age will fondly remember certain tracks among these three discs (plus an extra DVD of videos that the bands might rather have forgotten), even if the admission criteria are suspect. The highlights come from people who did not realise that what they were doing was goth: Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Echo and the Bunnymen, all of whom avoid the foursquare conventionality of the fanatically committed.

The mainstream here reaches its apogee in the magnificently truculent ridiculousness of the Sisters of Mercy, Andrew Eldritch’s lyrics pouring out in a flood.

In sensibility, if not in musical achievement, it is a surprisingly short step from the Renaissance gothery of, for example, Miranda Sex Garden to a new release on Deutsche Grammophon. John Dowland, the Elizabethan and Jacobean composer, has the most lachrymose of any English songbook. The lyric poems Dowland chose to set are relentless in their unhappiness. Women disdain him, tears fall, he longs for sleep and darkness and death.

He has never been short of surprising celebrity admirers, from Elvis Costello to the similarly paranoid Philip K. Dick. (Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said is steeped in Dowlandiana, from its title in.) The latest to fall under his spell is Sting, whose forthcoming CD Songs From The Labyrinth, a collaboration with the Bosnian lutenist Edin Karamazov, interweaves uncommonly jaunty performances of Dowland’s songs with extracts from an obsequious letter the composer wrote from Nuremberg to Sir Robert Cecil, Elizabeth’s spymaster, in a pre-emptive bid to ward off accusations of treason.

It is a truism that early music is sung to far higher technical standards today than would ever have been heard from the original performers, many of them amateurs or placemen. Dowland arranged his scores so that they could be read by four people sitting round a table, and Sting’s self-confessedly “rough tenor” makes for an intimate performance. He plays up with gusto to the invitation offered by “hellish jarring sounds” in “In Darkness Let Me Dwell”. As a good goth before his time, Dowland both celebrates misery and nods slyly to its absurdity. In the middle of “The Lowest Trees Have Tops”, a setting of a lyric by the generally cheery Sir Edward Dyer, the words
spiral down just as the melody see-saws up in the opposite direction.

The sensibility that ran from Dowland to Joy Division crops up elsewhere as well: in Portuguese fado, in the Sodade of the Cape Verde islands; in Klezmer laments. Fifty years ago, the women patrons of Bucharest cafés were, reputedly, wild for falsetto Gypsy singers, and the greatest was Dona Dumitru Siminica. A new re-release captures him in full melancholy flow. Siminica’s songs are paeans to misery. “I was having too good a time,” he wails, “I didn’t notice that she loved the other man.”

These songs were recorded in the early 1960s in Romania, but have been scrubbed up with startling clarity by Marc Elsner. The remastering makes them sound fresh but, paradoxically, even older. You can easily imagine the adolescent Patrick Leigh Fermor, on the way to Constantinople, stopping off between the woods and the water to listen to this in a café. As with Dowland, Siminica’s unhappiness is immensely cheering.

‘A Life Less Lived: The Goth Box’ is out now on Rhino. ‘Songs From The Labyrinth: Music By John Dowland’ is released by Deutsche
Grammophon on October 9. ‘Sounds From A Bygone Age Volume 3’ is out on Asphalt Tango on October 10.

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