Sunday, January 24, 2016

"A Speck of Dust:" Gang of Four Confront Mortality on "The Dying Rays"

Photo courtesy of Metropolis Records

Although the current incarnation of Gang of Four is more like Gang of One following the gradual departure of all classic lineup members except founding guitarist Andy Gill, the band's appropriately named 2015 release What Happens Next (reviewed HERE) had far more peaks than valleys. The album's bona fide masterpiece, the mournful ballad “The Dying Rays,” evokes the quiet desperation of Gang of Four's 1995 track “Unburden” (from Shrinkwrapped) as guest vocalist/German music megastar Herbert Grönemeyer delivers a raspy, Sealesque interpretation of Gill's moving lyrics on mortality and regret:

What I wanted
Disappears in the haze
A speck of dust
Held forever in the dying rays

Breath on the mirror, nothing in sight
The horizon's bare but in the night
I missed the pilots' light

Control and power
Empires were built in our minds
But it will all go up in a blaze
Only dust
In the dying rays.

In my interview with him last year, Gill offered insight into the song's meaning and creation.

“It's very much written from the heart,” he said. “It's not a young man's song, let's put it that way. I think with a little bit of experience and a certain amount of looking in the rearview mirror, you have some ideas about time, wasted time and things like that. I hesitate to over-explain because I think Gang of Four, over the decades, has sometimes been guilty of trying to be our own reviewers and trying to really spell out what we think it's supposed to say. I think sometimes, you can take away some of the magic in things by over-talking them. But the crucial thing about that song was Herbert Grönemeyer talking to me and saying, 'How's it going, Andy?' I explained that Alison [Mosshart, The Kills/The Dead Weather] had sung on a couple of tracks, and I was excited about it. He said, 'Do you want me to sing on something?' I thought, 'Yeah!' It was an interesting idea, and a lot of people in Germany have recently expressed quite a lot of surprise at that collaboration. I thought, 'I've got a few songs kicking around here; I've got some demos. Maybe Herbert can do this one or maybe that one.' Then I thought, 'Hold on a second. Let's not waste this opportunity.' I went and kind of really listened to Herbert's work and the things he's done. The thing that he does that most affects me and most moves me are the mid-tempo, angst-filled ballads. He has a very emotional and moving voice. He did a great track with Antony of Antony and the Johnsons guesting on it. It's quite a sad song, and Herbert really inhabits the track with his voice and his emotions; he seems to be in the track. So I thought, 'I'm not just going to give him any old thing; I'm going to have to really try to make a track for Herbert to sing.' It was hard work; I went down a lot of blind alleys and went in circles. I was really kind of getting getting frustrated; I was getting in different musicians I knew to come in to try to help me co-write this thing.

“I didn't know where I was going, but eventually something clicked,” he continued. “I was just playing around with a little drum loop, and then the guitar seemed to work and then it started to fall into place. It took a long time. And then the words...I was in this Elizabethan house, [a] hotel in England. The sun was going down, and I was sitting in the chair and doing nothing, staring off in the middle distance. I just saw this speck of dust coming down in front of my eyes. It mesmerized me; I was hypnotized like a cat. [Those were] the first words...the 'speck of dust' thing. Everything came from that.”

Last fall, the song received extra attention with the release of The Dying Rays Collection, a four-song digital EP including two remixes and the English and German vocal versions. The release is also available on a super-limited, hand-numbered white label vinyl pressing that quickly sold out in Germany. The final available copies are available HERE.

Like the rest of What Happens Next, “The Dying Rays” is a masterstroke of musical exploration from a group unafraid to take left turns nearly 40 years into their career. It was easily the best song of 2015


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