Thirty years on from its original release, listening to the album – the third of five studio albums the band made between ’74 and ’78 – is a remarkable experience. Though there’s nothing as immediately powerful as the cracked nostalgia of Adventures In A Yorkshire Landscape or the power-pop of Maid In Heaven from earlier albums, there’s masses that’s vital and twisted and satisfyingly out-of-its-time as Nelson sets about creating a self-contained, wrapped world of accessible peculiarity. Dismissed at the time by Those Who Knew Best as a glam/prog irrelevance (a view given teeth by punk’s burst into the cultural consciousness), there’s stuff on here that helped fuse those genres with post-punk experimentation. Thus, while it bleeds Bowie and Music Hall and Science Fiction and Mott and Queen and pre-bland Roxy, it also points towards PiL and Wire and Krautrock and the Flaming Lips and the Pixies and Giant Sand and Zen. With only very small glances at Duran Duran and The Darkness.
It’s the melodies and choruses that keep Sunburst Finish from being Prog; it’s the weirdness and dark lyricism that keep it from being Pop; it’s the minor-key, discordant jazziness that keeps it from being Rock. Nelson’s guitar drags, pushes and punches the whole thing along, heading off at full speed towards 70s masturbatory overkill every now and then but (usually) turning back to embrace the song again. Simon Fox’s able drums, the late Charles Tumahai’s flexible bass and Andrew Clark’s just-right keyboards give further depth to their boss’s vision, only occasionally (when Nelson’s co-production with John Leckie becomes too cluttered) undermining it. The English ordinariness of Nelson’s voice makes some of his more over-indulgent lyrics a little more intimate and when the words hit home- the richness, sadness and loss of jewels, tears and rain- they really hit home.
‘Hand me my costume, please, won’t you pass me my mask . . .’ There’s a pleasing 19th-Century European sordidness – brothels and absinthe and moonlit alleyways – lurking in the best songs here. Fair Exchange’s stop-start time signatures and self-referential rattling-staccato guitar/keyboard/drum riff drive forward the best track on the album as Nelson’s narrator watches, amused and a little despairing; Beauty Secrets’ low-key acoustic-led soul-dance has him, again, looking a little askance but, this time, with a poetic tenderness that drags the listener into his decadent, self-mocking world; Crystal Gazing’s Bowiesque, Brecht/Weilly tale of lost souls in the city snarls at times, Alex Harvey-like, then smiles, warmly.
Crying to The Sky’s homage to Hendrix- aching gentleness raised high by a restrained, beautiful guitar solo from Nelson- and the XTCish pop of Ships In The Night (Number 23! in the charts in February 1976) are the album’s most immediate, cuddly moments. But nothing’s ever quite straightforward with Sunburst Finish: just when you think you know where a song’s going, it screeches to a halt and veers off somewhere else, different times, different places. Blazing Apostle’s catchy pop melody gets dragged around all over the place while its percussive God/Devil imagery – a Yorkshireman’s take on Southern US Gothic – is deepened by the guitar and keyboard strangenesses. Life in the Air Age’s exploration of the alienation of someone from a different planet (Nelson himself?) – ‘I’m old and I could use a friend’ – is spun along breathlessly by Tumahai’s funk and a Soft Machine-jazziness before heading off into guitar solo textures and a repetitive semi-chorus.
It’s not perfect, of course: the big, operatic Sleep That Burns is alternately scary and silly while Like an Old Blues is just irritating – weak and gimmicky off-kilter rock’n’roll. 1991’s re-mastering of the album for CD added in three ‘new’ tracks: a studio version of the live favourite Shine, a funky instrumental jam that sounds like a slightly less annoying Style Council; the folky, largely acoustic ballad Blue As a Jewel, rescued from the middle of the road by Nelson’s never-quite-MOR voice and the widdly, proggy Speed Of The Wind. None really enhances the original album, though each offers more than a glimpse into the Nelson-to-be.
And that, in some ways, is the point. While at times Sunburst Finish is the whitest of white music, the 1976est of 1976 music, at others it’s much, much more. There’s a lot that’s wonderful in and of itself here and there’s a lot that Nelson and those he influenced/was influenced by would build on and take further. 2006 would be that small bit different, that small bit poorer, if this album had never been made. Give it a try.
-Kev Acott, twistedear.com
Be Bop Deluxe-SUNBURST FINISH (1976)