England and the United States aren't only separated by a common language, but by a common pop landscape as well. In the UK, Dexys Midnight Runners had eight top 20 hits and, to some, their leader Kevin Rowland is a beloved icon. In the U.S., Dexys are essentially remembered as one-hit wonders.
If you're going to be remembered for a single track, you could do a lot worse than "Come on Eileen". From the instantly recognizable strings and thump tha-thump of its bassline through its manic finale, it's an infectious gem-- possibly the only song I've loved continuously for the past 20 years. And hidden in plain view beneath that familiar shell is one of the most brilliant odes to the invincibility of youth in rock history. Buoyed by his sexual awakening, Rowland announces an allegiance with each of his parent's youth culture and insists that he's "far too young and clever" to grow up and turn into those he sees in his town "with their tired eyes sunk in smoke-dried faces/ Resigned to what their fate is." As wonderful as "Come on Eileen" is, to say that's only part of the Dexys story is a gross understatement. Let's Make This Precious, an 18-track compilation released to coincide with Rowland's reformation of the band for a UK tour and to record two new tracks (both of which are included) makes a succinct argument for Dexys through the UK looking glass.
Over the course of the band's first lifetime, Dexys ran through a series of incarnations and looks. They started playing horn-driven soul and dressing first in proto-New Romantic lamé and then Mean Streets-inspired street gear, made Celtic- and fiddle-inflected music in dungarees and facial hair, and followed that with heartfelt, honest, piano-filled ballads and a Brooks Brothers/Ivy League motif. Through it all, Rowland retained a professional approach, an insistence on high standards that was coupled with a restless pursuit of individualism, a hunger for passion, elements of beauty, wit, and style, and a disdain for safe mediocrity and careerism.
Right from the Stax-like start it was a winning formula, best evidenced early on by the Northern Soul homage "Geno" and "There, There My Dear", an acerbic open letter to hipsterdom on which Rowland's vitriol overwhelms his ability to enunciate. Following the success of debut album Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, Rowland formed a muscular new version of Dexys and toured as the Project Passion Revue. That group never recorded a studio album but are thankfully represented here by a pair of scorching BBC performances ("Until I Believe in My Soul" and "Let's Make It Precious"), as well as the singles "Plan B" and "Show Me" (both of which were later re-recorded in drastically different versions).
Over the course of Dexys final two albums-- the worldwide hit Too-Rye-Ay and the jarring, career-sinking Don't Stand Me Down-- Rowland engaged in courageous and sometimes painful self-examination with increasing lucidity and beauty. On Don't Stand Me Down, Rowland shifts between personal monologues and his expressive singing voice in an attempt to reconcile memories and articulate his identity. Perhaps aware of the disarming nature of honesty, Rowland repeatedly asks permission to speak his mind and heart ("May I be clear on this point?" "Can I reminisce?" "Let me put it another way").
Rowland's lack of confidence was even evidenced in his waffling on his choice of song titles. Two of the three Don't Stand Me Down tracks included here underwent name changes in the time since their original release. The tribute to his Irish heritage once known as "Knowledge of Beauty" is now "My National Pride". What was once "Listen to This" is now "I Love You (Listen to This)". Rowland's failure to give that second song its intended title is particularly revealing because it's about the consequences of his inability to admit admiration for a woman. That's also a theme explored on the 12-minute opus "This is What She's Like", in which Rowland struggles to articulate the sensation and mystery of love and attraction. In the end, the best he can muster is letting the music do the talking.
With their two new tracks, Dexys manages the rare trick of picking up largely where they left off. "My Life in England" is a characteristic stroll through Rowland's childhood memories. Far better is "Manhood", so perfect and graceful a comeback that it at once threatens to make any other new songs superfluous and gives rise to the hope that there are yet more gems from Rowland to come. It's a confessional track on which Rowland admits his insecurities and dread, recounts his emotional failures, and even includes a call-and-response reminiscent of much of Don't Stand Me Down.
"Manhood" is all the more heartbreaking as it's followed here by the holding out for hope of "Tell Me When My Light Turns Green", an early Dexys soul track that illustrates Rowland's failings and fears as a young man and the belief that he'd grow out of disappointment and pain. "I've seen quite a bit in my 23 years/ I've been manic depressive/ And I've spat a few tears," he says, determined that he'd eventually get the go-ahead to find happiness.
The tracklist for Let's Make This Precious-- selected by Rowland himself-- isn't perfect, but it's a strong introduction. The band's covers of "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven When You Smile)" and "Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache" and the self-penned hit "The Celtic Soul Brothers" are all fine but are included at the expense of more unique, rewarding gems. (Most notably: "Liars A to E", "Reminisce (Part 2)", "I'm Just Looking", "Keep It", "The Occasional Flicker", and "Dance Stance/Burn It Down").
It's a minor issue in the grand scheme of both the return of Dexys and the opportunity to redress their relegation to the margins of pop's history books. That's fitting because Rowland has spent his career redressing his own past and voicing and airing his fears, yet his often confessional music doesn't typically afford him reconciliation with the details of his life. He rarely draws conclusions in his narratives and stories, demonstrating wisdom and strength often only in hindsight. Instead of clarity, he often bumps against continued confusion as he attempts to redraw the map of his life. Hopefully, this return will go a long way to redrawing the legacy of Dexys, giving people an opportunity to follow Rowland's lead and gain wisdom of his strength and beauty with the benefit of hindsight. He deserves to sing more than one song forever.
Source : https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/2522-lets-make-this-precious-the-best-of-dexys-midnight-runners/