Level 42

2006: W14/Universal 1704323

  1. Dive into the Sun
  2. Rooted
  3. The Way Back Home
  4. Just for You
  5. Sleep Talking
  6. Retroglide
  7. All Around
  8. Clouds
  9. Hell Town Story
  10. Ship
  11. All I Need [Bonus Track]

I’d read reviews of this album which suggested it was really more a Mark King album than a Level 42 one, and I decided that was probably a pedantic criticism by those who believe Level 42 have a specific sound that’s consistent over time (which I don’t feel is the case). And in any case, Mark King’s a fine musician himself, and I’m open to what he’s cooking up.

I played it three times through the afternoon my copy arrived from Amazon. Not all of it is great, and it’s more than a little repetitious, but sometimes even that repetition is a subtle buildup of layers rather than a loss of way. “The Way Back Home” is currently my favorite track, as its oddly off-balance rhythm plods along in sad, lonely circles for just under 7 minutes; I kept thinking it was going to fade out anytime after 4 minutes, but the mantras kept feeding into each other and kept me hanging on for more despite myself. Each chorus iteration was like a painting being repainted and coming out slightly different each time while retaining some intrinsic identity.

Anyway, there’s a lot of well-constructed fun to be heard here in addition to the somber indulgences. I quite like it. Plus King’s voice really is a smooth and strong instrument which he’s learned to get the best out of over the years, so much so that I find it incredible that it’s not merely as good as it was 25 years ago but actually much better. He also multi-tracks to superb effect…which obviously is helpful when you’re the only remaining original member of a group to sustain the “sound” (if there is one—see above). It’s also worth noting that I was surprised to discover it was King and not Mike Lindup providing falsetto vocals on certain of these tracks…I’d always thought only Lindup handled those. The choruses of “Clouds” arc King’s voice in duet especially beautifully and poignantly…“holding on.”

Apparently we have Boon Gould to thank for the album’s lyrics. They are a very interesting assortment, ranging from the brooding helices of “The Way Back Home” and “Clouds” to the jacked-up chatterfest of “Sleep Talking” and the kinda-works-kinda-doesn’t stab at Americana trash life in “Hell Town Story.” While the latter makes me think of other artists’ attempts (Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do,” Francis Dunnery’s “American Life in the Summertime,” Don Henley’s “Sunset Grill,” and any number of others), it doesn’t quite succeed or fail…it just tells some stories almost compellingly but not quite. Still, King works and stacks the vocals perfectly—I love it for that. “Another case of Rich Man, Poor Me.”

The most profound lyrics on the album, at least on the surface, are those for “Ship.” “When your ship comes in / will it be a galley full of slaves / or a sun-streaked schooner?” That’s just a snippet; the song in full bears considering. But “Rooted” has more intriguingly interwoven threads that overlap in that genuinely elliptical way that makes me keep consulting the lyric sheet to see where that line, or something very close to it, was already used in the same song; the implications of its statements and qualifiers stacking up in this way make for a track I can really get my teeth into and savor. There’s religious feeling mixed in with unstable artistic and personal faith, all adding up to a picture of inconclusiveness rather than merely an inconclusive picture.

Ironically, it’s the title track that disappoints on all counts…I get the point, but it’s just tired-sounding in all senses. “Did you ever get the feeling this sun has set,” King sings a little over a minute into the song, and I must confess I felt that way about this track that never quite decides where it lives and rambles on rather uninterestingly while it wanders around. It has a couple of nice lyrical lines but they don’t go anywhere.