Edwin R. Stevens God On All Fours

Label
Ankst
Released
10th November 2023

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Format Info

LP - black vinyl

What does it mean “to go straight?” How did Metallica get to Nothing Else Matters after years of brutality?  How did David Lynch come to tell his Straight Story? Like these artists, Edwin Stevens, long-time guitar mangler, distorted punk waste merchant and fecally-obsessed author has loped off his gnarly edges and protrusions to reveal something not straight, perhaps, but something approaching pure and recognisable. God On All Fours is Stevens’ “straightest” album to date and by far his bravest and most approachable. Edwin R. Stevens’ “straight story” turns out to be a masterclass in storytelling.

Of course, for seasoned Stevens-followers, glowing pathos and humanity was always beneath everything he does. Often liberally slathered in his own virtuoso, wild guitar style and the deft, substantial contributions of his collaborators, the songs at the heart of his craft always seemed to be great, almost classic if only you could wipe away the fuzz. On God On All Fours, Stevens does that himself. Recorded directly with long term supporting musicians Andrew Cheetham, Dan Bridgwood Hill, Ruari Maclean and Stevie Jones, this set is the premium Edwin Stevens delivery system. Stripped down to the bare songs, delivered relatively directly, Stevens reveals himself to be a master world-builder, employing a novelists’ use of narrative and picture-painting. His songs and lyrics curl around the human heart, prodding the funny bone with a witty couplet here, stabbing a particularly sore point there with a devastating detail. His narratives take unexpected turns, informed by close-to-the-bone observations and colour reminiscent of the likes of David Berman’s Silver Jews or mid-period Bill Callahan, if those lyricists came from North Wales rather than middle America. It’s hard to imagine either of those writing a line like “Could you just this once try and have sex with your wife, love is a stray dog and it’s set on fire by kids, he’s an only child and he needs this.””

God On All Fours, being a stopping point in the long and winding road that is Edwin Stevens’ musical career is, of course, not a completely straight story. There are recognisable themes that hark back to other Stevens’ work, dark threads and events that stick in the throat; the lurid yet heartbreaking album highlight Only Child is a meditation on family and the frailty of its structures. Medication Ran Out paints a brutal 21st Century murder tale against the backdrop of a cartoonish “broken Britain.” Stress And Relief has the feel of a Velvet Underground classic yet opens with the line “ I dream of it and wet the bed: stress and relief,” before veering, Icarus-like, pretty damn close to the sun, if the sun was a bona-fide love song. The song reminds us that many of Stevens’ songs are powered by an internal tension, calamity always threatening around the corner. Here there’s a suggestion of redemption in the simplicity of having someone to share your calamities and anxieties with.

Emerging from behind the shadow of his “singer/songwriter” alias, Irma Vep, Stevens perhaps reveals more of himself as a human being than ever before. If Irma Vep’s overpowering compulsion was for self-analysis bordering on self-flagellation (as hilarious and thrilling as that often was), under his own name his stories seem more well-rounded, more honest. It’s telling on album closer Some Things Are Best Left Undone, a cover of his own song as Irma Vep. The same song, a beautiful ballad, is rendered here simply and boldly with piano and voice in contrast to the scratchy guitar version recorded 10 years ago. It might be an intertextual joke given the song title but we can afford Stevens his own private mirth given the killer last line of the song and album: “the horse you rode in on just died and I swear I saw a tear in his eye / You thought that he might try say goodbye but he didn’t and you wonder why.”  Whereas the Stevens of 2013 might have covered up the core of his message with self-deprecating tape hiss or guitar brutality, here Stevens is telling his story, straight. His story, it turns out, is not one solely populated by ghouls, distortion and compulsion but one that we can all, horror of horrors, relate to. Just people doing people things, fucking up, stressing and relieving, living crooked or living straight.