January 2001 – mini-album reviews – The Servant’s ‘With the Invisible’ (“art gets made, covertly, in rush-hour”)

22 Jan
The Servant: 'With the Invisible'

The Servant: ‘With the Invisible’

On last year’s ‘Mathematics’, Dan Black (the voice, face and most of the limbs of The Servant) lifted the lid on a peculiar pop world, fascinated by the chasms between reality and imagination and between formal order and animal madness. ‘Mathematics’ was a dance of numbers, monkeys and peculiar people-watching, jamming in suspicions of murder, deranged Bunuel-ish aristocrats and shopping mall alienation. Unusually, its sonic palette was just as wild as its subject matter. It was as chopped-up and mercurial as it was catchy and danceable, emphasising Dan’s omnivorous sampler as much as his peculiar sneer (thin and venomous, but in its way the wildest and most devil-may-care British pop vocal this side of Billy Mackenzie).

With Chris Burrows now recruited to the project to beef up the guitars, ‘With the Invisible’ hints at being a more conventional follow-up to ‘Mathematics’. In many ways, it is. It’s less extreme, more aligned towards the needs of a guitar band: the sounds are much less wild and varied, with less cunningness required to ensure the gelling of the musical ingredients. Hell, it could almost be Britpop; albeit at the Pulp end as opposed to the Shed Seven end. But I’m not convinced that this means Dan Black has shot his artistic wad. In fact, I’ve a suspicion that where ‘Mathematics’ rattled the cage of the fantastical, ‘With the Invisible’ (right down to the title) documents Dan’s interaction with the everyday – the office jobs, adverts, commuter rushes, conspicuous consumption and car ownership that most of us take on continually and take for granted.

Certainly ‘Biro’ is about sulking in an office, your mind scrabbling desperately for escape either in desk-based sculpture, the limited options of the office party (“wet-look in my hair?”) or violent fantasies – “I just killed my new boss / shut that cock up, with a rock, / non-stop in his face, / and what a smug face.” Inevitably, it concludes “it’s plain to you and it’s plain to me, / there’s nothing for you and there’s nothing for me,” but it has a colourful time getting there.

With that admitted, the next question is how to live under those circumstances, if at all. The brass-pumping ‘Milk Chocolate’ is a rebellion, which finds Dan capering under the motorway next to a blazing bonfire. Systematically, he’s burning all of his possessions from hi-fi to furniture right down to his clothes, trying to shake off the packaging of the modern world. But with “milk chocolate pumping through my heart” the contamination of consumption has already reached to the core of him, leaving him with the logical conclusion of joining his own trash on the fire.

Or not. The bodypopping, Prince-like, bubblegum funk of ‘In a Public Place’ suggests an accommodation, even a brainwave to slake that thirst for stimulation. Art gets made, covertly, in rush-hour. “Among stumbling commuters / I think about each step, / not where I’m trying to get.. / In a limited space, / I try to find a cube for me. / With suble changes of pace, / I move through various densities.” There’s even peace to be found – “watching people move, / they appear to groove / with the invisible.”

For a while, our man seems happy in a formal suit and in step with this world. By the time the White Town-ish synth pop of ‘Driving at Night’ shows up – deliberately tidy – he’s possibly taken it too far. “I try hard to be like I’m in an advert / as we descend upon upon the M1.” Before long, though, The Servant are back to poking holes in the fabric of the world again, trying to expose the workings. In the Jam-versus-hip-hop bust of ‘The Entire Universe’, this happens via rampant, tongue-in-cheek paranoia. “How can I trust my own memory? / Did what I thought I saw before occur?” yammers Dan, almost with relief, as flute shrieks and silvery Indian strings zing off the barking guitars. “How can I trust my own family? / Maybe they’ve lied for years to me.”

By the finale, ‘She Cursed Me’, the music is heading back towards the heady mix of sounds that characterised ‘Mathematics’: ironic tinges mixing with intimate pastiche, music box interludes, bright dreamy shifts of mood and texture with a sharp mind manipulating them. And Dan’s narration has moved well clear of city rules, looking backwards to villagey beginnings, the first stirrings of curiosity (“she cursed me with impatience / and I need to follow clouds,”) and the repercussions of actions (“our conversations by the pond / I wonder if they’re still going on – / swimming on the gluey pool, / around the church and up to the school.”)

The Servant are still marching to their own inner promptings; still bouncing on the shock of impulse. Still the colourful alien probe that’s embedded in the mundane. Keep watching.

The Servant: ‘With the Invisible’
Splinter Recordings, SP003CD (5 038622 102326)
CD-only mini-album
22nd January 2001
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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