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Music of the Week — August 19, 2007

Rupert Hine: Waving Not Drowning

It’s been well over twenty years since my friend Robert sent me a tape of this album, which had gone out of print within a couple of years of its 1982 release. It’s still (or again?) out of print in this country, although you can get it as a thirty-dollar import. But it was only recently that I discovered that two of the best songs on the tape were actually from another Rupert Hine album, Immunity, also available now only as an expensive import, and according to the All Music Guide an even more unsettling work than this one. I’d really like to hear it, but am not sure I’m altogether prepared for it, as Waving Not Drowning captures certain aspects of urban/industrial society in the late 20th century better than any other work of popular music I know, and it’s not a comfortable experience.

Those “certain aspects” are unpleasant ones that were particularly prominent in the late 1970s and early 1980s: anxiety, paranoia, disorientation, isolation, and plain old fear. The music relies, fittingly, although not exclusively, on the cold timbres and unnatural strength and agility of synthesizers and other electronics. To dismiss it as “synth-pop,” though, would be seriously misleading. If “pop” implies something at all frivolous and lightweight, it’s not a word that belongs anywhere in the vicinity of this music, which renders a very dark world with great skill.

The first song, “Eleven Faces,” appears to be about someone trying to pick a rapist (or maybe a rapist-murderer) out of a lineup. The last one, “One Man’s Poison,” is a bleak survey of the unjust vagaries of fortune. Between the two, the mood never lightens, although it runs through many varieties of unease. The experience could be extremely unpleasant if it didn’t keep you so busy admiring its brilliance.

The songs, arrangement, and production are truly extraordinary, all the way through. I have my favorite tracks, of course, but every one holds my interest. A large part of the credit goes to the lyricist, Jeanette Obstoj. As anyone who reads these reviews regularly knows, I place a lot of importance on lyrics in pop music. These misfire occasionally, becoming obscure or possibly just confused, but overall I know of very few more successful marriages of words and music this album.

I’ve found a couple of videos on YouTube and will direct you to them rather than attempt to describe the music further. Personally I have never liked music videos in general and don’t think these are very good even by standards of the genre, but they’ll give you a taste of the music. The first of these, “Surface Tension,” is actually one of the Immunity songs that was on my tape. But it conveys the atmosphere of Waving better than the other one, a bitter look at a disturbed family called “The Set Up.” Bear in mind that the poor sound quality of these videos means that you’re missing a significant amount of the sonic detail that makes the album so compelling.

I should point out that as bleak as the album is, its title suggests hope, being a reversal of the lines from the famous Stevie Smith poem:

I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.


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