Diehard Dexys fans have long been primed to expect the unexpected. Almost from the moment they first appeared, as the 70s became the 80s, it was apparent that this was a band that would run entirely according to their leader Kevin Rowland’s own, occasionally imponderable, internal logic. The release of a new Dexys album invariably heralded complete change: a radically different look, a new sound, a new lineup.
But even said diehard fans might raise an eyebrow at The Feminine Divine. It is not so much that it doesn’t look, or occasionally sound, like any previous Dexys album. The cover drawing of the Hawaiian goddess Pele looks as if it belongs on the sleeve of a psychedelic trance compilation; there are musical diversions into sleazy Prince-ish electronic funk, jangling Balearic house pianos and slow-motion breakbeats topped with spoken word vocals that bring to mind early 70s Serge Gainsbourg – but diversions are par for the course with Dexys. It’s not that Rowland spends a considerable chunk of the album excoriating his younger self, the Rowland who made the albums that diehard fans first fell in love with. That is par for the course, too, at least in Dexys’ latter-day incarnation – their first album in 27 years, 2012’s One Day I’m Going to Soar, was a self-flagellating exploration of Rowland’s failings, filled with self-doubt and dissatisfaction.
No, it’s that fans might be surprised The Feminine Divine actually exists. After all, after the release of 2016’s Let the Record Show: Dexys Do Irish and Country Soul, Rowland announced that he was done with music. The solitary Dexys’ release since was a radically remixed version of their biggest-selling album, 1982’s Too-Rye-Ay.
But clearly Rowland did a lot of rethinking during his time away: the songs on The Feminine Divine are meant to display a 180-degree turnaround specifically in Rowland’s attitude to women. It opens with a song he wrote in 1991, when he was in the grip of a debilitating addiction to cocaine. The One That Loves You bristles with condescending protective blokey energy – “You’re a very strong woman, but you’ll need my love,” sings Rowland, before offering to beat someone up on her behalf – set to the kind of perky mid-70s soul that is the initial half of the album’s default setting. You can picture these songs in an old Top 40, keeping suitable company with Billy Ocean’s Love Really Hurts Without You or Linda Carr’s High Wire. It is followed by a succession of songs that either examine Rowland’s mental health, frequently in a call-and-response style that effectively creates a dialogue between the singer and the backing vocalists, or repudiate sexism in favour of worshipping women as goddesses. “This is the only way, the way it has to be / Women have been put down for too long and it’s up to you and me,” sings Rowland on the title track, one of several lyrics you might decry as painfully earnest and on the nose were it not for the fact that complaining about painful earnestness on a Dexys album feels a bit like complaining that a sandwich shop has just sold you a sandwich.
More questionable are the places The Feminine Divine goes in its second half. By Goddess Rules – more spoken word, this time over the aforementioned sleazy electro-funk – not being sexist and worshipping women as goddesses seems to have transmuted into being a sexually submissive masochist, which feels like quite a leap. Then again, every album Rowland has made since 1985’s Don’t Stand Me Down has had at least one WTF moment that seems designed to leave even the most devoted fan scratching their head. Don’t Stand Me Down’s long journey from object of widespread ridicule to enshrinement as a wildly inventive masterpiece – and the similar journey of his 1999 solo album My Beauty – acts as a kind of insurance policy for some of Rowland’s weirder trains of thought: if it all made sense in the long run before, who’s to say it won’t happen again? Besides, The Feminine Divine pulls back from the WTF brink. The piano ballad My Submission and the subdued electronic funk of closer Dance With Me are exceptionally beautiful songs that perfectly showcase Rowland’s mature voice: devoid of the old tics and yelps that betrayed the influence of Chairmen of the Board frontman General Johnson, richer, warmer.
So The Feminine Divine is at turns discomfiting, brave, baffling and hugely impressive. It is a dramatic left-turn that feels like business as usual precisely because it’s a dramatic left turn; the kind of album that no one would countenance making except Rowland. Diehard Dexys fans doubtless would not expect anything less, but even if you don’t count yourself among their number, The Feminine Divine might leave you glad he chose to continue doing what he alone does: after all, genuinely unique figures are thin on the ground in pop these days.
This week Alexis listened to
Declan McKenna – Sympathy
There is something really impressive about the sound of McKenna doubling down on the esoteric 70s influences of his last album: Sympathy is both a fabulous song and one you could imagine David Essex releasing in 1974.
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