Seminal late 1990s/early Aughts UK indie weirdos Mansun broke up in 2003. Soon after, frontman Paul Draper began work on his first solo album…only for it to never see the light of day. One reason for this is that it simply was never completed. (Details, details.) After spending 2014 and 2015 producing the debut album from world-beating polymath/total badass Catherine AD (aka The Anchoress), Draper was inspired to revisit this post-Mansun project and record his own material for the first time in nearly 15 years. The result is Spooky Action, whose songs detail a number of the actual reasons the record was originally scrapped: exhaustion, jealousy, mental illness, drugs, feuding, blackmail, publishing issues, lack of confidence, perceived lack of interest.
On Spooky Action, Draper incorporates Krautrock and electro-soul into Mansun’s signature mix of indie and prog. This heady brew is, at once, complex and immediate, and is chock-full of Draper’s flexible, unique vocals. Mansun was a band that could write big slabs of art rock and strange but brilliant pop singles with equal aplomb, and that versatility is a huge part of what makes this record so compelling. Contrast the slowly building, percussive, psychedelic-paranoid LCD Soundsystem vibe in album opener “Don’t Poke the Bear” with the instantly catchy, warped Philly soul of “Things People Want.” Elsewhere, “Grey House” skulks along on treated synths and slap bass that sounds like someone jumping out at you from behind a corner. It has the cool, arty edge of one of the fractured “rock” tracks on one of Bowie’s Berlin trilogy albums.
Album standout “Jealousy is a Powerful Emotion” sounds like the electronica of Tangerine Dream crossed with the alt-rock shoegaze of the Catherine Wheel. Depeche Mode-tinged single “Feeling My Heart Run Slow” could be a lost classic from an alternate reality where synthesizers were the foundation of New York post-punk. Even three-minute pop songs like “Can’t Get Fairer Than That” are full of left turns and wiry squiggles. Mini epic “You Don’t Really Know Someone Til You Fall Out with Them” floats in and out on church organ, sounding like the Verve jamming with Meddle-era Pink Floyd.
Spooky Action is also a collaboration with the aforementioned Catherine AD. Her innate skill at mixing the dramatic with the immediate makes her a natural partner for Draper, and her input is integral to the album’s success. It’s also fitting that Draper landed with Kscope Records, a label that’s been a nurturing home for alternative rock/indie with a prog-rock side. (Or is that the other way around?)
While the album occasionally suffers from a lack of focus, and some of the melodies would benefit from being sharper, this is a satisfying listen. Intricate yet accessible and askew without being impenetrably weird, Spooky Action simmers in conflict, envy, and dissolution, but doesn’t let bitterness metastasize and avoids developing a martyr complex. It’s a rather honest look at what happens when relationships—personal and professional—fall apart and when you become your own worst enemy. With any luck, it won’t be another decade and a half before we hear from Draper again. | Mike Rengel
RIYL: Mansun; Bowie’s Scary Monsters album; U2’s Achtung Baby if it was written and recorded under the grandstand at a dodgy horse racing track; that tantalizing borderland where pop meets art rock.