Over the years I have written a fair few of these Lost Albums features. These vary from albums from established groups that did quite well in the charts, such as Big Country’s Steeltown, to under the radar classics that have never troubled the mainstream, such as Dalek I’s Compass Kumpass.
But when I first started writing these features, the album I had in mind was Simon Bonney’s 1992 masterpiece, Forever.
It ticks all the boxes for a great lost album – largely ignored critically and commercially but containing some of the most perfect, heart-wrenching music ever committed to vinyl. There is no reason why Forever should be condemned to this status other than pure dumb bad luck, as it is everything a record can be. It is a perfect record; there is nothing that could be added to it or taken away from it that would improve it even slightly. It is a record that should be in every collection the length and breadth of the world, but instead has to settle for being little known but much loved.
Sometimes life is like that.
Simon Bonney first came to the public’s attention as singer in Crime and the City Solution, a band who also earned a Lost Albums piece. Crime were a superb band who released a run of excellent records that again managed to go largely unnoticed by the record buying public. This does not dilute their worth though, and I would strongly advise people to check them out.
While Nick Cave has, quite rightly, grown in popularity over the decades, Crime and the City Solution, along with Simon Bonney, have been unfairly passed over. Any fans of Cave’s oeuvre would be doing themselves a favour by tracking down both back catalogues.
When Crime and the City Solution split up, Simon Bonney moved Los Angeles, where he recorded his first solo album, Forever. The spirit of America is writ large in its songs and sounds, with the album having a much more Country-fied sound. Bonney’s audience up to this point may not have had fond feelings for Country music, but he proved that it is not what genre a song falls into but how that song is executed that is the important thing.
Forever is perhaps as much a result of Bonney moving away from his past and the weight of expectation as it is a reaction to his new environment. Although Americana is present throughout its songs, the thing that struck me the most when I first heard the album is how far away it is from the commotion and drama of Crime and the City Solution’s previous works. Forever is sparse where Crime were dense and it concerns itself with the personal where Crime cast their lyrical net at a wider world.
Forever is a record that is listened to with a frown; it is serious and melancholy, it gives voice to the feelings of loss and rejection that run through all our lives at various times.
Being a huge fan of Crime and the City Solution, I bought Forever as soon as I could lay my excited little hands on it. If we are being honest my initial reaction was that it was not the album I was expecting, but straight from the first play I knew it was an album that would live with me for a long time. Occasionally when playing it someone would comment “are you listening to Country and Western now?”, but I wasn’t, Forever was something else. It does not fall into the category of Country and Western, not can it be classed as Alt-Country. Its roots may lie in some common ground, but Forever exists in its own world.
Simon Bonney’s life, travels and concerns are what fed into Forever, and it makes for an intimate, personal experience, as the best art does.
Opening track Ravenswood sets the scene as it fades in. An acoustic guitar and an initially anachronistic pedal steel are the first instruments we hear, letting us know that things have changed, we are heading in an unfamiliar direction. Forever does not ease the listener into this new sound, but starts as it means to go on.
Perhaps anticipating our concerns, Ravenswood looks at change, as Bonney sings ‘Well you know you know I think I’m changing, did you ask me why?’ and the chorus tells us ‘I think I’m going to Ravenswood to see the light change.’ This change might not be for the best though, as he reveals ‘I think I see angry rain, rain on me.’
It is a perfect way to begin an album like Forever, a haunting slow burn of a song that fits Bonney’s lyrics perfectly. Around the time the album was recorded, there was a thread of Southern Gothic running through the work of the likes of Nick Cave, Rowland S Howard, et al, but it is Bonney not Cave who perfects the music to go along with this theme, as if others were unwilling or unable to see it to its conclusion. Ravenswood shows the beauty and desolation that this music is able to capture.
The album’s title track is next up and Bonney sings of the ideal world he would like to live in. It is a place ‘where ideas are ideas only, where perfection and the perfect are lonely.” His voice is perfectly suited to the melancholy tone of a song laced with regret and displacement. Bonney’s wife Bronwyn provides violin and backing vocals that lifts the song and the overall effect is one that is uplifting rather than downcast.
A Part of You is a straight Country song on the surface and one that conjures up images of it being played live to a room of cowpokes and tassled shirts, but the lyrical intensity of the song raises it above any such pedestrian concerns.
Next track Like Caesar needs a Brutus is an album highlight looking at a relationship that seems to thrive on adversity; ‘Like Caesar needs a Brutus, like you and I. Like Jesus needs a Judas, like you and I.’ The emotional conflict of the song is made explicit as Bonney sings ‘I want you, but I don’t want you. And I need you but I don’t need you. And I love you but I don’t love you. And I think I’m gone.’ Jagged guitars mix with Country style pickings and the song soars epically, raising the volume and the intensity levels from what we have hear so far. The conflict at the heart of the lyrics is left unresolved as the song’s main character only thinks he is leaving the relationship but is obviously still tied to his partner.
Saw you Falling is a fragile thing, it sounds like a gust of wind could blow the song away, leaving nothing more than a sense of disillusionment. Two guitars and a double bass provide the accompaniment to Bonney’s song of being unable (or perhaps unwilling) to help someone in trouble; ‘Saw you falling when you fell and kept on falling. Heard you calling when you called and kept on calling.’ Perhaps the fuller back story here is that we are looking at the end of a relationship where one of the people involved realises that things are over and emotion has gone, along with any kind of love or support; ‘nothing grows when the water don’t flow. And nothing flows in the frozen snow.’ The message is as bleak as the music is beautiful.
Someone Loves You wakes us up after the gossamer threads of Saw You Falling and is the most Country and Western of the songs here, but it is still unmistakably the work of Simon Bonney. At no point here has his artistic vision been sacrificed in the move to a different musical style. Yet there is authenticity here, from the trebly twang of the guitar to the pedal steel guitar lines and indeed from Simon and Bronwyn’s vocals. The aim here is not to subvert Country music, but to use it as the best vehicle for the songs and the lyrical concerns. Country has a history of tragedy and regret being part if its makeup and Bonney is recognizing that and utlilisng this tradition to carry it further on.
The lead single from Forever, There Can Only Be One, is up next and carries the least Country flavour of the album, which is possibly why it was made the lead single in the first place; it would not be out of place on a Crime and the City Solution album. Lyrically, There Can Only Be One again seems to look at a fading relationship, continuing Forever’s more personal approach, with Bonney singing of ‘the sound of you making up your mind, the sound of you leaves me behind.’
This is not to say that the songs here are autobiographical or put Simon and Bronwyn’s personal experience under the microscope, but that they look at personal feelings rather than a calamitous situation involving many people.
Now That She’s Gone is another sparse, harshly beautiful song that looks at the breakdown in self respect that follows a break up, with the protagonist wondering ‘who will love you not that she’s gone?’ Accompanied by nothing more than a few chords on a slightly distorted guitar and Bronwyn’s haunting violin, Now That She’s Gone puts the listener front and centre of the resulting existential crisis to great effect. A case of less is truly more in the right hands.
The Sun Don’t Shine returns us to the album’s Country roots, being based on acoustic and pedal steel guitars again and casts Bonney as an unsympathetic partner who tells us ‘I’m puzzled by your pain and I don’t need your shame.’ A waltz style middle 8 reinforces the Country connection still further.
Forever finishes with Ravenswood (Reprise), an instrumental revisit of where we started, all those stories and emotions ago. This version is filled out with piano and sounds lusher and more expansive than the original or indeed anything else on the album.
As the last song fades out, we are left feeling slightly drained after out journey through the troughs of fading and failing relationships. The effect of listening to Forever is similar to that of binge watching a full series in one go, a series that makes us feel like we know the characters and their lives and we feel involved as their lives start to fall apart.
Simon Bonney’s next album, Everyman, saw him continue to absorb the Americana around him but losing the Country feel to a more laid back rock sound. Despite the nomadic approach to genres, it is still instantly identifiable as the work of this incredible and singular artist.
Although other people from Bonney’s scene may have made more commercial impact, few if any can lay claim to having created such a superb and sprawling back catalogue. This is a body of work that deserves a much wider audience than fate has granted it. There is something here for everybody and there is much to love. Forever.
This article will be followed next week by an interview with Simon Bonney in which we will discuss his life and his art along with the making of Forever. Follow Sun 13 for further updates and features.