“This is a song for those who never stop believing” proclaims Chris Braide as ‘Prelude’ begins. This optimism, gilded with naivety, continues to prevail against the pitfalls of a loose narrative sketched across the musical landscape that traverses through his and Geoff Downes‘ third collaboration under their Association nomenclature for Skyscraper Souls.
From the outset this feels a continuation of the previous album Suburban Ghosts wherein it evoked the sense that Braide, as vocal narrator, was returning home from the USA to a Britain much changed but trying to hold onto treasured memories despite time and circumstances interfering with the reality of it all. The album was soundtrack to a TV series never made. This time round the stakes are raised where instead it veers between a series two with a bigger budget and television movie as aural comparison.
To that end we have guest musicians and singers and the stage moves to one looking at the small rock we call Great Britain, what its immediate future holds for a close knit group of characters and how that resonates ebbing back and forth for the nation as a whole. Water is a constant metaphor, naturally enough this being an island nation. Thus we cannot expand outwards and instead build tall towers of Babel to contain and isolate ourselves, from shiny fetish totems for business, or tawdry affairs like Grenfell that are literally airborne ghettos. Further, we meditate and contemplate within, placing ourselves nearer to an imagined physical Heaven while too often being morally bereft from the spiritual teaching of most faiths. Skyscraper Souls then is an apt title.
I doubt this album is intended as Downes Braide Association’s take on Great Britain’s immigration explosion, nor the expansionist plan for more green belt housing desired by politicians and their developer partners. More, it is about how in a world of constant change so many of us struggle to see how our own daily lives can improve for the better on a practical level, and that emotionally we can become overwhelmed. To this end, ‘Prelude’ is akin to Peter Gabriel’s ‘Don’t Give Up’ and ‘Glacier Girl’ focuses on those lost and bereft, trapped in ice metaphorically.
‘Skyscraper Souls’ follows the opening number in a vaguely film noir tinted manner, a piano tinkling with Braide narrating before it becomes pop rock with a bright sheen, then a jazzy light dance giving way to Downes’ full piano solo. Expanding as a full band it become akin to an epic collaboration between Yes and 10cc, adding female harmonies then a phone recording that perhaps echoes Buggles too strongly in our consciousness; whereas XTC’s Andy Partridge guitar soloing away here and throughout the album, or just snatching the odd lick, is a most welcome contribution, expanding majorly on his minor appearances last time round. His playing is always crisp and lyrical, skipping across the fretboard as appropriate while never being over flash with both hands really grafting to ensure his contributions add to the songs. His solo on ‘Angel On Your Shoulder’ for instance on what is otherwise a very 80s tune in terms of its main beat, vocoder treated vocals and brassy keyboard melody.
Those water metaphors are felt most strongly on ‘Tomorrow’ and ‘Lighthouse’. The first builds musically, keyboards sprinkling atmospheric mystery while vocals are sung in diametrical opposition being an outright declaration of love now and forever, “As long as white horses come in” sings Braide of the waves that capture and caress this our island, keyboards then latterly affecting a Celtic pipes texture, layering in the right side of romantic nostalgia. ‘Lighthouse’ rhythmically kicks in drawing analogies to how lighthouses act as guiding beacons of protection against danger, bolstering bright and shiny but with an overcast shadow in the distance felt, as just before three minutes in Partridge’s guitar appears all too briefly with pinched trills and runs as a War of the Worlds style voiceover narrates and we’re offered philosophical homilies along the lines of “Your soul is a lighthouse”.
I found one of my favourite songs to be ‘Skin Deep’. A rather beautiful piano based torch ballad, where Braide and former Soft Cell singer Marc Almond trade lines or sing in unison. The voices often blending in a way rarely heard since the early sixties. This could have been an overwrought number and still worked but its restraint is admirable, and also very British. Downes’ keyboards producing a sombre horn section as the song moves through an emotional circuit, outlining how those pretending to be tough sometimes aren’t with references to the Glacier Girl also present.
Taking these characterisations a spiritual step further ‘Darker Times’ deliberates over “friendships not constraints” extending musically in a stately fashion as the harmonies “We are all one” and “We are all one energy” evokes Yes in its refrains. Then at 5 minutes 10 seconds in they are joined by a guitar solo until the song fades and ‘Finale’ bookends the album, Partridge producing eloquent Jeff Beck style licks as Downes plays a grand piano and Braide reprises a lyrical refrain from ‘Skyscraper Souls’. The track is succinct and near perfect. The album as whole isn’t bad either, rather good in fact. Do yourselves a favour and check it out.