Attack Of The Grey Lantern (reissue) -The Quietus (Reviews)
Attack Of The Grey Lantern Simon Jay Catling , June 14th, 2010 08:58
It's no great shock when great bands fail to live long in the memory once they've passed, but when one of those fallen by the retrospective wayside possessed a career that boasted a number one album, as well as two others in the top twenty (at a time when the charts just about still meant something,) and numerous festival headlining slots, the decision by successive tastemakers to wipe them from the annals of fond recollection takes some explaining. Consider the case of Mansun, four then-young chaps from Chester who formed at the height of Britpop's champagne supernova years in 1995.
Looking back through original reviews of this album, it's hard to understand why Paul Draper and co. have been allowed to fall into forum chucklings about 90s also-rans; you know the ones - Menswear, Echobelly, Marion.. "Verges on the awesome with almost every fondled fret" squealed the NME excitedly, with The Guardian also bestowing five stars upon it. The only answer I can muster up - as a writer who at the time was just a humble youngling being played Oasis and Blur tracks by his older brother, only to ask, "which one of them does that song about chickens?" - is timing. Or lack of it.
Attack Of The Grey Lantern came out in early 1997, the year John Harris will gleefully tell you was when Britpop's bubble burst. The record did get positive reviews, but the Spice Girls had already stomped their platform trainers all over the numerous pimply-faced four-piece guitar bands performing on Top Of The Pops the previous year. The fact that Mansun's debut wasn't influenced by The Beatles, or The Faces - as many others were at the time - but the pop star Prince, mattered not. They were four blokes, they had guitars; ergo, they were Britpop (support slots with Cast and Shed Seven can't have helped that image mind.) It did get to number one in a quiet week, and so in a sense the scene they'd unfortunately been lumped in with had at least paid some dividends; but it's not a promising sign when your debut album marks one of the last hurrahs for the environment it was bred amongst.
Fast forward to Six and they'd unwittingly got it wrong again. A second album that had truly snapped, with Tom Baker spoken-word, opera singers and Nutcracker samples, it was ridiculous and all the better for it. Unfortunately some months beforehand Radiohead had suggested, with Ok Computer, that British rock music didn't have time for pompous grandiosity and brazen confidence any more - there were more serious matters afoot. More serious matters afoot indeed, because once Travis took heed of Thom Yorke's message of understated emotional anxiety minus any of the, well, anxiety on The Man Who, that was that. Excess and experimentation missed out on filling the Britpop void in favour of gently-strummed, heart-on-sleeve ballads. Mansun tried this too, only succeeding in hurrying through the pretty awful Little Kix. Besides, within a year The Strokes had come across the pond and forced British rock to regain its abrasion and swagger again. Bugger. By the time of Mansun's split in 2003 and B-sides and rarities compilation Kleptomania, few cared; those that did, like Hope Of The States, soon met their own ironically inconspicuous demise.
Well this is wrong, and this reissue will hopefully re-adjust the views of some, for despite the batshit lunacy of Six, it's their debut that truly deserves acclaim still. Let's put it to task against three of the 'big four' who Mansun found themselves competing against at the time (Attack Of The Grey Lantern's murky landscapes and subtle humour stand at polar opposite to the everyman obviousness of Oasis' material.) As a concept album it's darker than any of Blur's celebrated trilogy of Britpop albums: where Damon Albarn paints his characters' problems amidst a technicolour backdrop of bank holidays, booze and slap n' tickle, Draper takes his out of the city, away to a village and subjects them to a series of uncomfortable encounters with the elusive Mavis, the stripping Vicar, tea with Egg-Shaped Fred- bizarre and fascinatingly vague characters in a warped fairytale. Unlike Albarn, he doesn't hide behind his creations either, in fact by 'Disgusting's' queasy ooze he's initiated himself into the melee, a shockingly open display of mid-record confidence loss: "it's so disgraceful, you're disrespectful, you are disgusting." In fairness to Blur's front man, he'd shed his protective skin the same year with Blur, but Draper's self-loathing is narcissistically thrilling to witness, shifting in and out of focus throughout- see the whimsical 'Mansun's Only Love Song's' contrast 'Wide Open Space's' chilling bleakness.
Dark environments and twisted humour were also two of Pulp's hallmarks. It wasn't until 1998's This Is Hardcore that they found the grandeur to match them though; filling the disco seemed their concern in the 90s. It's unfair to say Mansun didn't want to make people dance- 'Taxloss's' slapping drum loops and 'Egg-Shaped Fred's' "na-na" backing vocals are aimed squarely at the feet- but it's a secondary issue, proof lying in the fact that it's these two songs that sound the most dated on re-visit. From the portentous strings of 'The Chad Who Loved Me' through gloomy church bells and to the ever swelling retort of 'Dark Mavis,' Attack Of The Grey Lantern is built on lofty ambitions. Much like Suede then, certainly on the surface Dog Man Star would lie alongside it as a worthy bedfellow, but can you imagine Brett Anderson bellowing 'The Still Life's' final words, only to then go "nah, only jesting?" Draper does just that, the hidden encore of 'An Open Letter To The Lyrical Trainspotter' apparently a complete dismissal of the previous hour's work. Conflicted writer or just taking the piss? It encapsulates just how infuriating, funny and intriguing this record can be (and that judgement made without even mentioning the wicked humour of 'Stripper Vicar.')
So how does Attack Of The Grey Lantern fit into today's musical landscape? Well it doesn't of course, but then it didn't seem to on its initial appearance; that's the singular overriding brilliance of this record, it's undeniably unique. There are influences aplenty sure: prog-rock, glam, touches of Acid House even, but it remains unarguably the work of its creators. These days, genres splinter more than ever, and those wielding the axes are swinging in more and more varied and uninhibited ways- what better time to re-launch this album into their vicinity? Perhaps now Mansun'll get the true respect they deserve.