April 2000 – mini-album reviews – The Servant’s ‘Mathematics’ (“cleverly constructed songs which nonetheless loll open like burgled cupboards, disarranged and pried into”)

24 Apr
The Servant: 'Mathematics'

The Servant: ‘Mathematics’

To realise just how good The Servant are, you have to look back a few years and see just how bad they could have been. Back to 1990s Swinging London and the age of the Young British Artists: paint, press and garbage flying everywhere while Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin and co. latched onto the multi-media cow and deliriously milked it for all it was worth. Restaurant tie-ins, TV shows, crappy crazy-golf designs… Anything which took the piss, got attention, built the empire.

British pop – siamese-twinned to art-school anyway – didn’t escape this cross-media surge. A slew of appalling artist/band tie-ins tumbled into the world. Big Bottom, Fat Les (or anything else in which Alex James cosied up to fellow Goldsmiths’ alumni). Various one-of/fuck-offs with conceptual artists barging onstage, messing around or just singing badly in the name of deconstruction or situationism. The original spark for this was Minty, the performance-art-cum-pop band assembled by the late Leigh Bowery – a genius costumier, an infamous artist’s model, an indispensable link between conceptual art and gay clubbing, portraiture and pop trash.

Minty, though, was his one ignominious failure, remaining better known for Nicola Chapman’s transparent dresses (and for Bowery literally shitting on his audience at one fateful concert) than for music or vision. Noisomely cheesy in their calculated obscenity, their attention-grabbing stunts and their sherbety gargling squeak-pop, they left a couple of singles (the childish shock-pop stream of sneering abuse on Useless Man and the paper-thin, bored-with-it-all drone of That’s Nice) which still sometimes pop up in arty DJ sets to remind us all of what was putrid even before it was dead and buried. Two fatal errors doomed Minty. One was their assumption that calling themselves “artists” ensured that art (rather than amplified fads) would come through them; and the other was attempting to plaster conceptual art’s whims onto the surface of pop, like cheap multicoloured cladding.

Servant leader Dan Black – who, like his bandmates Matt Fisher and Trevor Sharpe, was once part of the Minty circus – has obviously learnt from this. With The Servant, Black is smart enough to work from the other way around this time: writing scratchy, catchy songs which actually work, and then twisting their vision from within. Certainly The Servant avoids Minty’s sub-Wildean, cripplingly trashy desire to celebrate the trivial and superficial. Instead of sloppy art-to-pop, ‘Mathematics’ is full of shrewd Bowie’n’Devo-esque pop-to-art. Cleverly constructed songs which nonetheless loll open like burgled cupboards, disarranged and pried into.

It’s constructive criminality, though. Vandalising pop with creative intent, layering it with pop-up samples, buggering about with the implications, enjoying the theatrical interplay of sounds. It’s also the truest British parallel to Beck yet. Dan slithers in and out of sketchy transparent personas; paralleling Beck’s American easiness with his own Home Counties fussiness, Beck’s quirky patchwork of ideas and soul-revue showmanship with a violent jarring of public and private universes and with arch music-hall wit.

Dan himself seems to be constantly hovering, saturnine, above the songs. He’s just that little bit smarter than the music – involved in it but not quite of it. Although his thin nasal sneer of a voice recalls his previous band, this time he’s made sure that his irony has something substantial to grip onto. Teased for his eccentric dancing skills (“an orang-outan body-popping… a monkey who is rocking”), he gleefully makes himself the butt of an old Darwinian joke. “Look darling, it’s our cousins. / Come in and meet the family. / We are eating. / Well, you must join us. / Come on dear, lay another place for the apes and the chimpanzees,” he sings, to the accompaniment of brittle white soul-funk as monkeys cackle feverishly behind him, and broken pianos spin into the breaks.

It’s not just the supercilious servility of the band’s name that’s suspicious. Messing around with perceptions is The Servant’s stock-in-trade. Tuneful and catchy the songs may be, but each one is a mass of elaborately layered confusion in sound and text. Instruments and sounds appear in the wrong places, or squeezed into unusual forms by hip-hop-era sonic tinkering; and airy lyrics are jostled by intrusive sounds. It seems right that Dripping On Your Maths (popper-fuelled disco rhythms mixed up with a particularly wilful string quartet) makes jumpy little attacks on correctness and rationality. “Hunched up poring over graphs – / don’t blink, / just think / of all things and their link,” sings Dan sardonically, like a rebel maths tutor watching his sweating pupil’s tidy equations succumb to chaos. “Is this what you studied for? / A kind of mime, from nought to nine…”

The Servant’s music is a colourful, disturbingly surreal puppet show, in Dan plays the role of head marionette as well as that of chief string- puller. At the same time, he’s violently shaking the scenery with whichever limb is free, in order to reveal the workings of this enclosed world. The masterstroke in this approach is Conversation. It rips off and flips over the infamous Kashmir riff as a starter, but that isn’t all that it flips over. Initially, a kitchen-sink drama (illicit love, a girl making secret trips to a payphone, the delaying of a promised call) promises to develop into a classic little story. Then Dan starts to dismantle it with a cool, sadistic science. “The girl from verse one / Does not exist / Sure, you can feel her hands, but she’s just an idea.”

Toying with both our impatience and that of the luckless, fictional heroine (“Don’t you find the waiting tough / Even when occupied by love / and all that kind of stuff?”), he’s also dropping heavy hints to us that he’s not only the narrator, but the feckless love interest. “The tragedy is that Gary’s me / and it’s 7.40…” When he brazenly admits “If you feel any pain, / well, I’m to blame,” it’s a multiple confession. It’s also a superbly heartless one, with the air of a man pushing models around on a strategy board, or an author invading his own story for reasons of control or revenge. Yet it also pokes hard at our own complicity in the tale, as readers; while helping everything along via a smashing, seductively slithery tune.

More authorial meddling comes free with the supermarket voyeurism of Tangled Up in Headphone Lead. Lazily people-watching from a mall cafe, Dan attempts to divine the personalities of strangers from disconnected clues and cues (rubber marks left by hot shoes, hands running pinlike across tins, peculiar walks). The result’s a distracted, disassociated love song in which the lovers never even meet, and in which affection, confusion and atmospherics become hopelessly intermingled. There’s romantic, summery acoustic guitar, yes; but there’s also alien booms of Scuba breath. Heavenly swells of synth jab jaggedly as Dan’s latest persona meanders from thought to dysfunctional thought: “I wonder how you feel. / I struggle with complex food.” Obviously, he’s a stranger here himself.

The other thrust in ‘Mathematics’ is the creation of artfully sinister images of England. This makes Dan Black the evil quad to the three other recent self-conscious bards of Blighty: Neil Hannon, Richard Larcombe and (the pre-’13’) Damon Albarn. Too Late is an effete-yet-violent English nightmare. It drowses in cello sounds and summery meanders, but it’s also encircled by thunderstorms and by Miranda Sex Garden’s gently menacing backing vocals. “I imported horses from Dubai,” drones the aristocratic narrator. “Like great white sharks, we rode around the local park.. / Like spraying paint we flew across pedestrians…” It’s a decorous rampage with a sticky end; a final fall that’s heralded by a genteel waltz.

If that’s macabre, Walking Through Gardens is positively disturbing. Any song that claims “when my wife died I was happy” (and which talks about a corpse buried in the backyard with the same concern that it shows regarding the installation of a barbeque) is never going to make it onto Our Tune. Blending with echoes of Fred West’s psychotic house-proud callousness and with the pomp of English gardening culture, chaos and horror break through the herbaceous borders. “We’re finally going to get a patio!” announces our hero. Triumphally sweet orchestras and brave trumpet greet the joyful news, but other music is also worming up to meet it: violent surges of drum’n’bass, claustrophobically oppressive bass synths, metallic dripping noises and a meat-mincer of a mix. It’s ‘Ground Force’ versus ‘Blue Velvet’, with Foetus as referee. Guess who’s winning.

Life’s what you make it, and The Servant make it decidedly strange. But it’s been a long time since we’ve had anyone in British pop toying with the paper moons, mining the flutters and lunges of the subconscious, with such wit and danger or with such cunning artfulness.

The Servant: ‘Mathematics’
Splinter Recordings, SP001CD (5 038622 101626)
CD-only mini-album
24th April 2000
Get it from: (2020 update) CD best obtained second-hand; stream from last.fm.
The Servant online:
Homepage Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Amazon Music
Additional notes: (2020 update) The Servant split up in 2007. Dan Black moved on to a solo career; Trevor Sharpe has played in Deadcuts.

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