Returning Jesus (2001)
On and (mostly) off, no-man’s 2001 release Returning Jesus slowly came together over a period of thirteen years.
Galvanised by writing Carolina Skeletons in 1998 and assembling Speak in 1999, the last two years of the process were spent fine-tuning the track order and artistic direction, finding the right musicians for certain tracks, and approving final mixes.
At various points, Steven and I had agreed on a 35 minute version of the album, which included only the more introspective and epic material, and a 70 minute version, which included everything we’d recorded during the album sessions. At one point, spoken linking sections echoing the lyrics were considered.
In the end, we agreed on a 52 minute collection which we felt represented the most coherent album statement we could make. Favourite and fully developed songs, such as Chelsea Cap, Something Falls and Darkroom were consigned to b-side status, but we strongly believed that the resulting album benefited from the ruthless edits and the focus on sequencing and flow rather than quantity.
The album’s lengthy gestation may have gained us junior level entry into the It’s Immaterial School Of Eternal Waiting, but luckily for us the debating and nit-picking seemed to pay off as Returning Jesus received some of the most positive reactions of the band’s career.
More so than on any other album we’d made, material came from anyone and anywhere and was completed in anyway that worked best for the album. Though the majority of the album’s material was written between 1996 and 1999, it also came from anytime as it spanned the band’s entire career up to that point.
The oldest track was Close Your Eyes, which had its origins in a song called Desert Heart from 1988. We’d always liked the song’s verse melodies and its dramatic coda, but felt that it should have been developed into something more substantial. The track came back into focus for us when we were resurrecting Speak-era material in the late 1990s. Lyrics were changed, choruses and middle eights were added and some inspired instrumental additions were made by Ian Dixon, Steve Jansen and Colin Edwin. Melancholy yet uplifting, the lyrics are vague, but the feelings the song evokes in me are vivid. The piece was performed on the 2012 no-man tour and provided a highlight for both band members and audiences. Though the song is structured, it allows a lot of room for interpretation and improvisation, so it’s never performed the same way twice. 25 years after it was first written, Close Your Eyes still feels like an ongoing work in progress.
Lighthouse evolved in more convoluted circumstances. The piece started off in 1994 with a guitar sketch that I played to Steven. This developed into the intimate Song About The Heart, but within the week had become the basis for the far more ambitious Lighthouse. At this stage, all rhythms were drum machine generated and the mid-section was longer and less complicated. The highlight for me – omitted from future versions – was an elongated Minimalist section featuring layered vocals playing both with and against the keyboard pulses. At the time we’d written it, we viewed the song as an Angel Gets Caught style centrepiece for a creative follow-up to Flowermouth (this idea was abandoned when the more aggressive and spontaneous Wild Opera material started to dominate recording sessions). The piece was left to hibernate for a few years, with the only activity being that my opening guitar line ended up as part of a Fish song (Say It With Flowers) in 1997. Lighthouse was approached anew in 2000 and with the addition of Steve Jansen’s drums and a real Hammond organ took on a totally different character. Steven wrote an even more complex middle eight and an atmospheric interlude was added. For this, I wanted to hear some furious ‘free jazz’ drumming constantly shifting beneath the stately chords. After initially sounding unsure about the idea, fuelled by jokey insults, the mighty Steve Jansen came up with a very fine line in controlled chaos. A weird fusion of cathartic Soul-tinged love song, Minimalist Classical mid-section and Classic Rock finale, in some ways Lighthouse unintentionally reinvented the Progressive Rock wheel. What we saw as emerging out of Steve Reich, Marvin Gaye, Blue Nile, Talk Talk and Rain Tree Crow influences probably had as much in common with elements of early Genesis, Pink Floyd and King Crimson (hopefully in a distinctive way, of course). As the old saying goes, you can take the man out of the Prog, but you can’t take the Prog out of the man.
Lighthouse – first version
Only Rain‘s history was a little less complex, but not by much. The piece emerged out of an idea I had for 1995’s Flowermix album. I was working with David Kosten (Faultline, Bat For Lashes, Everything Everything etc) at the time and suggested that we stretch the string coda to Watching Over Me out to become a piece in itself. I was never a great fan of ‘dance’ remixes, so I thought it might be interesting to bypass the typical drum-heavy remix approach. I imagined a cross between Arvo Part’s Cantus In Memory Of Benjamin Britten and Miles Davis’s Sketches Of Spain that David beautifully realised. Feeling we’d hit on something special, we extended the piece even further and Only Rain was born. The song was scheduled to appear on the debut Faultline album, but for various reasons this was looking less and less likely as the time of its release drew nearer. Wanting to rescue a piece I really liked, I suggested to Steven that it would make a perfect introduction to the no-man album we were working on. Steven agreed and set to work on enhancing the Faultline version of the piece. Colin Edwin’s warm double bass was added to underpin the already existing Ian Carr trumpet part and Steven used some abstract Ben Christophers’ guitar fragments to great effect. ‘The lyric’s evocation of a relationship in stasis echoed the feel and style of Returning Jesus and once completed, it was inconceivable that the track had ever been intended for anything other than the album it ended up on.
All That You Are, originally performed by Samuel Smiles, was a gently subversive 6/4 time Rock’n’Roll ballad I’d written and given to Steven to arrange, while Slow It All Down was a Steven instrumental he allowed me to tinker with.
The original backing track for No Defence was sent to me when I was living in Manchester in less than ideal circumstances. The lyrics and melody were a heartfelt response to a genuinely worrying time for me and included one of the rare moments of obvious humour in a no-man song. Not quite Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow, I grant you, but Zappa might have approved regardless.
Written in the studio in real time, for me, Carolina Skeletons and Outside The Machine rank as two of the band’s best and most accomplished piano led ballads. Outside The Machine was written as an abstract way of describing situations I’d witnessed during the last months of my time living in London (the title derived from a wholly unrelated and rather fine short story by Jean Rhys). Carolina Skeletons was more like a short story set to music and for some reason I always imagined it as something the great Randy Newman could have written for the likes of the equally great Robert Wyatt, Peter Gabriel, David Bowie or Kate Bush.
The title track, the most subdued piece on the album, was possibly the most important song on Returning Jesus. Lyrically, in terms of what I do anyway, it was the ultimate in trying to express as much as I could with as few words as possible. In some ways, a metaphor for the album, the band and where I felt I was at the time of writing, the lyric attempted to convey the sense of loneliness and desperation that pursuing uncompromising approaches in life can sometimes lead to. Lurking in the background was the less than original notion of what would happen to a real prophet in the age of Dale’s Supermarket Sweep. Musically, Steven’s atmospheric ‘Gamelan Electronica’ backing was a great match for the lyric and the intense, repeating final section is still one of my favourite no-man moments. Along with Only Rain, the suspended ‘slowness’ and exotic soundscapes of Returning Jesus planted the seeds for the first half of Together We’re Stranger.
Although most of the music was recorded at Nomansland between 1994 and 2000, overdubs took place at the lovely Foel Studio in Wales in the Autumn of 2000.
Steve Jansen’s drums were recorded at Foel as were some wonderful organ parts (on a specially hired in Hammond B3 with Leslie cabinet). Dave Anderson (Hawkwind, Amon Duul) was an entertaining engineer/host/studio manager and the idyllic rural setting was inspirational, providing an ideal place to put what we’d done in perspective.
Of special interest to me and Steven was that this was where Peter Hammill had recorded his seminal album Over and where he’d posed for the cover photograph. As we soon realised, while comically failing to recreate his pose, this was a photo only made possible by Mr Hammill’s considerable height!
One abiding memory was of the two of us sitting in Steven’s car as the sun went down repeatedly playing Fairport Convention’s Sloth. The song’s relentlessly dark ending and raw, but compelling, mix became addictive to us. Although it’s a song that has no bearing or overt influence (that I can hear) on the music of Returning Jesus, it’s the one that I most associate with the making of the album.
The truth was that the music world wasn’t eagerly awaiting a new no-man album in 2001.
The sales of Wild Opera and Dry Cleaning Ray had been far lesser than those for Flowermouth, and the Carolina Skeletons EP in 1998 (which I considered to be the best thing we’d done up to that point) had come out to the fewest reviews we’d ever had (as in none at all!).
Elsewhere, Porcupine Tree’s star was justifiably rising and while Steven was more often than not on tour, I was also regularly gigging with Peter Chilvers and Samuel Smiles (including a few memorable PT supports).
In that we wanted it to be a definitive and honest no-man album, Steven and I treated Returning Jesus as if it was the last thing we’d ever release together. Our hopes for its success were minimal, but we were determined that the final product be as good as it could be (hence the months of fierce debates over track listing and final mixes).
Released in March, 2001 – a month before Burning Shed launched – unexpectedly, the album marked a rebirth in the band’s fortunes. Reviews were surprisingly plentiful (and mostly very positive) and sales were easily the best we’d had since the mid-1990s.
Feeling some of the ideas on Returning Jesus could be taken further, soon after the album’s release, Steven and I started work on Together We’re Stranger (which was completed very quickly by no-man standards). California, Norfolk was also started around this time.
Amusingly, one of the few bad reviews I saw for Returning Jesus said something as perceptive as anything written about the album. The journalist/blogger wrote a sentence along the lines of, ‘I really can’t stand anything about this album and what makes it even worse is that it’s obvious the band themselves love it.’ Then and now, the only response I have to that is, ‘Quite right!’
Tim Bowness May 2013