'Compromise is the devil talking' shrieks Kevin Rowland on opening track 'The Occasional Flicker'. Rarely has one line so aptly and succinctly described the sentiments of its creator. With Dexys Midnight Runners, Rowland constantly shifted (and expanded) his musical vision, incorporating frequent and reputedly ruthless line-up changes. 'Don't Stand Me Down' was the final Dexys album - a heartwrenching, intensely beautiful statement initially derided by baffled critics. It's fair to say that this is one of the most cruelly overlooked records of the eighties, its incredible depth and authority being ignored in favour of more immediate thrills. Now, it gets a second reissue (following the 1996 Creation edition that Rowland now admits was not definitive)and is finally restored to its intended running order.
For those who have already purchased the Creation edition - there are some benefits to investing again. Rowland has removed the 'stereo-enhancer' used in remastering the Creation edition, claiming that it resulted in a sound unfaithful to that of the original recordings. The difference is notable, the sound being more dry and less polished that on the Creation counterpart, but unless you're a real sound buff, you probably won't care. The real return here comes with the additional opening track 'Kevin Rowland's 13th time', at least as passionate and humorous as anything else on the record and set to a driving, soulful groove. This package also takes full advantage of recent technological developments, offering three videos in addition to the album itself. It is a shame that Rowland's awesome reading of Jerome Kern's 'The Way You Look Tonight' (a bonus track on the Creation edition) is not included here as it is an absolute treat, but there are more than enough extras to compensate and the CD is presented with equal care and attention to detail.
As for the music, it's as challenging, rewarding and powerful as ever. Rowland assembled a mighty ensemble for these recordings. Helen O'Hara's violin adds warmth and charm whilst some of the best session players have space of their own, rather than fading into the background. In fact, the Memphis rock-solid drumming of Tim Dancy and the wonderfully rhythmic piano of Vincent Crane help to define the sound, which seems partially indebted to soul and the way in which pop musicians adapted the soul sound to their own styles. Rowland namechecks 'The Wedding Bell Blues' on 'Reminisce' and the remarkable early singles of Laura Nyron do seem to be an obvious reference point. More literally, 'One of Those Things' is a direct steal from Warren Zevon's 'Werewolves of London', at Rowland's own admisson.
Yet, this is an outstanding and utterly unique record in its own right. The music floats and grooves with effortless clarity and style. It makes highly effective use of both melody and speech. The epic 'This Is What She's Like' begins with Rowland and Billy Adams talking, Adams trying to get Rowland to describe his latest love. He tries, but concedes that she is just too beautiful for words. 'Reminisce (part two)' is one of the most sentimental and whimsical vocals ever laid to record, Rowland narrating an account of an old girlfriend. In anyone else's hands, it could easily have been cloying and grating - here, it sounds honest and genuine. On the bulk of this astounding record, Rowland is at the height of his vocal performances, delivering virtuosic yet resoundingly unpretentious performances, varying dynamics and tone with unswerving commitment. If he'd only had more self-confidence in this talent and ability, he may have been recognised as one of the best singers this country has produced.
This is an uncompromising record, from the length of the songs to the prevalent Irish nationalist political agenda. It is also rampantly indulgent, Rowland giving away far more of his personal character here than on any other Dexys release. Despite, arguably even because of this, it remains a triumph - a record of manifest honesty, dignity and integrity. The latter two characteristics are probably things that Rowland abandoned forever with his extraordinary Reading Festival Performance in women's clothing surrounding the release of 'My Beauty'. This is a genuine tragedy. It's great to have these masterful recordings unearthed and restored again, especially for those who have missed out on them for so long. If compromise really is the devil talking, then maybe the devil doesn't have the best tunes after all....