Baxter Dury on “The Night Chancers” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Baxter Dury on “The Night Chancers”

Post-Brexit Bard

Apr 20, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Baxter Dury returns waxing indignant about slumlords, the fashion set, and a segment of the ultra rich with more money than empathy, taste, or sense, in his disaffected spoken-sung manner on his new album The Night Chancers. In the video for “Slumlord” he takes the role of this unsavory character, with gold teeth and a ring of keys hanging against his soiled wife-beater. In one frame, dirty mattresses are piled haphazardly with women in dishabille sleeping atop, while the female chorus coos sonorously: “Taps always dripping/sleeping in the daylight…no one’s going to say anything very nice.” It all paints a vivid picture of thin walls and impoverished neighborhoods that don’t promote healthy sleep—speaking acutely to the growing wealth inequality everywhere.

In “Saliva Hog” he animates polo-wearing “lizards”—their “scales breath and high level bronzer/covering up what you campaigned against.” It’s “Hashtag, me, me, me,” for these unctuous folks. While the girls chime: “who the fuck are you my friend?” Dury, like a post-Brexit bard, employs political jargon and subverts an important cultural moment to illustrate just how self-obsessed this one percent can be. Similarly, when he wails “scary people saying silly shit” on “Slumlord” you can’t help thinking of the scathing political discourse leading up to Brexit, and still continues against migrants, refugees, and common sense in the age of fake news.

Though Dury reveals he never set his sights on taking on national politics or class warfare, his overarching themes—of finding love and how to be a man in the social media age—coalesce around it.

“I am very concerned about my own micro politics than any extended view of the world,” he explains, when we speak to him from his home in London, not long after Brexit has gone into effect. He adds: “It’s more about the ghost at the end of my own street.” He admits it’s somewhat of a vanity project to talk about the trials and tribulations of a man looking for romantic relationships at this moment in time. But concedes: “In the abstract sense, of course, ripples of the larger world appear in the smaller man’s reality, and has implications for him.”

“The way they behave reflects how the world is changing,” he says, referring to “Slumlord” where he has fictionalized a cartoon villain out of someone he is acquainted with in real life. Then he refocuses the lens, tightening it in to his own experience, of being unmoored in this new reality “It’s a bit about when you get stuck in a world where…everything has changed in the last five or ten years, and you come out of a big relationship and it’s about finding out who you are again. How you communicate? Are you allowed to be with someone younger?”

After Dury’s long-term relationship came to an end a few years ago, he traded his bucolic home in the English countryside and returned to London. He soon took up residence in Hammersmith at the storied, old flat that once belonged to his late father (the influential Ian Dury of Ian Dury and the Blockheads). Dury spent part of his unconventional childhood in that flat with his father’s bohemian cohorts. These days it’s a far more stable existence for him and his 16-year-old son, Kosmo, who is considering going to Cambridge University while his father contemplates finishing a book, writing music, and navigating the Internet as a single man.

In “I‘m Not Your Dog” he talks about creeping on Instagram. “I’m not your fucking friend,” he berates, and almost immediately he spouts, “Trying to be though,” and the hate dissipates and a kind of desperation seeps in. He makes snap judgments: “I watch too much/You show too much.” But when you come of age in the transition from rotary phone to push-button, and have been in long term relationships shielded from swipe dating apps and Insta-stalking, how do you make sense of the dating landscape and new social media mores?

“I’ve created these characters that I can hide behind,” explains the now 48-year-old. “There’s so much data out there about someone, and their movements…and I sit there and obsess about it… I’m not saying it’s good or bad, I’m just talking about a pattern of behavior that exists.”

His dating adventures have also taken him to the heart of a somewhat, unfamiliar social circle—the fashion set. “You all got to go to sleep, dream, and wake up,” a somnambulant Dury drones in “Sleep People.” In light of climate issues, fashion does need to wake up and reconcile its raison d’être as an industry that perpetuates trend and waste. In recent London fashion weeks, Extinction Rebellion has held protests outside shows.

Dury appears an outsider with his face pressed up against the glass, observing the fashionistas: “There’s free drinks for the pencil thin.” But as he mocks them, he also reveals his aching desire to be part of that world. And while the hard work of fastening sewing pins, catwalking, and air-kissing can eat into sleep, his later forceful incantation to “dream a new dream” also alludes to that famed “dream” speech, and here perhaps a deeper desire for a new post–Brexit utopia.

After more than three years of stasis, it is understandable that most people want to just get on with this new world order, terrifying as it may seem. Dury boils down all the drama: “Maybe some oyster farmers may be upset. And we pay a little more tax on some hand cream. There might be more paperwork with getting carnets to travel around the EU for musicians…I’m just trying to be optimistic. We’ll have to wait and see now.”

It’s a strong character trait of Dury’s—to just get on with things. He had an unusual childhood—at five he was the coverboy on his father’s 1977 album New Boots and Panties!! The album’s success soon took the elder Dury away from home. According to the 2010 Ian Dury biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, by his early teens, Dury’s mother, who was a steady force in his life, had separated from his dad. When he went to live with his dad and his girlfriend, Dury was fully exposed to the vagaries of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. By 14, he’d dropped out of school. He might have enjoyed more liberties than most his age but he was also forced to grow up faster. He explains: “My father was quite strict. He was a bit ego-ecentric. Heaven knows I was under orders from him to do anything he told me to.” But Dury is also respectful of his father’s decisions, and isn’t bitter about his childhood. “It was a different generation. They went from post-war austerity to discovering bohemian options.”

His father’s genius, failings, and paradoxes are also a part of who he is. “I’m definitely not conventional, my name is Baxter!” he laughs. “I’m the right side of whacky.” However, he attributes his ability to stay on an ever-keel to his mother, who was a painter. “My mom was very normal and hardworking,” he says. When probed about his mother’s death in 1994, it’s the only time he politely declines a question. “Sorry, I don’t want to talk about it. Is that okay?”

But he does tell me proudly that his son is his number one priority now. “And that wasn’t the case for my dad,” he adds. “To my mom, I probably was her priority but not my dad.”

For as many doors as one might think his father’s name may have opened for him, it’s also a double-edge sword as the career trajectory of many a pop scion will reveal. When asked if he was ever worried about being in his dad’s shadow he replies: “I never thought about it. Never thought about if it was good or bad. I just got on with it. Sometimes I had opportunities and sometimes it was taken away from me. But I’ve always written and also done a load of other things. This now is just a natural conclusion.”

Dury’s first couple of albums bore a sonic signature far removed from his father’s. But after a career spanning 18 years and five studio albums, he seems to have hit his stride with a winning formula on The Night Chancers. It picks up from where 2017’s Prince of Tears—a career-defining best—left off, with Prince of Tears’ bracing lead single “Miami,” where Dury explored the darker interior of the male psyche in all its malevolence, id, and insecurity, spitting couplets like “I don’t think you realize how successful I am/I’m like a shipping tycoon/Full of promise and cum/I’m a salamander,” over a sleazy disco-electro beat, buoyed by orchestral flourishes.

But we know there is a soft emotional center here. And a song that reveals this, striping away at any kind of artifice is The Night Chancers’ penultimate track “Daylight.” It strays from that voice, what he’s referred to as that “cartoon mockney dolphin.” Dury captures emotions of abandoned shared dreams just before lovers admit theirs is not a happily-ever with each other. It’s a universal moment we all recognize. “I didn’t realize just how raw it all still feels,” he says a little surprised after I read a couple of lines back to him. “You saying those words back to me—I went, ‘Wow, fuck yeah.’”

“And it’s the only song that I’ve linked back to the last album—it’s about the same girl, I didn’t know that when I wrote the song,” his voice trails off. “It’s almost the last meeting we ever had, about a year or two ago: About a bunch of promises that we made about getting back together…. It’s really out of context in a way, with the rest of the album.” He stops. “I got that chorus in there to spread out the pain a little,” then his voice trails off again.

The chorus, as elsewhere on the album, is delivered by either Madeline Hart or Rose Elinor Dougall. In creating songs, he acts almost like a director, and has always written parts for women to sing. Sometimes, you glean that it’s to make up for the deficit in his own singing and other times he says: “I’m relieved from the raw emotions.”

“It’s often a melodic device,” Dury adds, “there are times when it’s more pleasant to hear a woman sing than the more monotone narrative from a guy. It’s a mixture of stuff actually—it can just be the structure of the song. When I’m writing I’m not often thinking about deeper issues. To evaluate it now, I don’t know if it has a deeper significance, it just seems like music—I don’t know if that’s really true. For me, it’s a blind, raw process writing songs. It comes up very quickly, very unfiltered.”

In that ritual, Dury recognizes that competent songwriters, filmmakers, and painters can help people draw their own truth from the work. The best songs on The Night Chancers are those that blend his truthful character studies with that sardonic sprechgesang, pretty melodies and orchestral crescendos.

Ironically, now that Dury knows he’s on top of his game, he doesn’t want to keep pressing repeat. He enjoys the kudos he’s recently gotten from critics and admirers like Iggy Pop but unlike lesser artists that might want to stick to a winning formula, Dury wants to keep evolving. “My craft and in a sense a certain style has been perfected and it’s easy…I don’t have to do it again basically. I don’t want to hear another man talking over an orchestral background,” he laughs, then declares: “I’m not dismissing what I’ve done! I just want to do something different next.”

Read our 2017 interview with Baxter Dury.

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