The Perfect Chord looks back at albums you may have missed when they dropped, or miss now that they've faded from memory. This week's glimpse into the crates:
Terence Trent D’Arby – Symphony Or Damn
To say that no one cared about embattled R&B singer Terence Trent D’Arby by the time he dropped Symphony Or Damn in May of 1993 is a bit of a stretch—he had already cultivated enough good will with his 1987 debut Introducing The Hardline that not even his nigh-catastrophically hubristic follow-up could erase him from the memories of those in the musical know. To D’Arby’s credit, it certainly helped matters that Neither Fish Nor Flesh, despite its ambitious-to-the-point-of-pretentiousness philosophical scope, still contained enough solid songwriting and performances to ensure someone would be paying attention whenever he re-emerged from the abyss into which he fell following the album’s commercial failure; the only question that remained in the early 1990s was which D’Arby would appear—the R&B wunderkind of Hardline or the would-be world conqueror of Fish whose relevance would collapse under the weight of his own vision?
At first listen, Symphony appears to be the return of the latter. "Welcome To My Monasteryo," with its layers of operatic vocals and synthesized strings, would be cringe-worthy on any other album; however, D’Arby smartly uses it as a segue into, well, another segue—seven seconds of synth-pop peppiness before the album begins properly. “She Kissed Me,” the first proper song (and first single), is one of D’Arby’s best compositions, a pop-rock number propelled by Tommy Girvin’s guitar and D’Arby’s own incredibly dynamic voice; the singer goes from an airy croon to a full-fledged belt with neither hesitation nor difficulty. Interestingly, though, what makes “She Kissed Me” so transcendent is its restraint. D’Arby keeps his voice in check, reining his penchant for showiness save for one small falsetto trill in the song’s third chorus; the rest of the song comfortably settles into “rock” territory, albeit more in the vein of Little Richard than John Lennon. Still, the song is the perfect beginning to an album clearly designed to show a focused, hungry artist.
Because, if nothing else, Symphony shows D’Arby at his hungriest, pulling out one solid performance after another, hitting the listener with his intensity right out of the gate. “She Kissed Me” fades out lengthily, only for “Do You Love Me Like You Say?” to immediately begin. The upbeat number features a leaping bassline courtesy of Kevin Wyatt over a powerful, percussive dance beat that vanishes during the verses, leaving only D’Arby’s own breakbeat drums and keyboards. Not to be outdone, the energy level jumps even more with “Baby Let Me Share My Love,” a breakneck-speed rock-inflected R&B number highlighted by D’Arby’s multi-tracked background vocals (a clear remnant of his soul roots). The album finally slows down with its fourth song, and first ballad. “Delicate,” a duet between D’Arby and then-relatively-unknown British vocalist Des’ree, is a Sade-esque venture into Adult Contemporary/soft R&B that, despite its inherent cheesiness, actually works very well.
From there, the album focuses a bit more on the Prince-esque focus on a sort of sexualized spirituality for which D’Arby is particularly known. “Neon Messiah” and “Penelope Please” take both darkly serious and lightheartedly-silly stabs at the concept (the latter featuring a particularly stirring reference to a Chrissy Hynde appearance on “Top Of the Pops”), while “Wet Your Lips” finds D’Arby employing his patented tambourine snare drum (and a fantastic, wah-wah-saturated turn on guitar from Girvin) while cooing a seductive tale. “Turn The Page” ends the first half of the album with a very earnest, thoughtful examination of how function in the face of constant change; produced by frequent Los Lobos/Tom Waits collaborator Tchad Blake, the song features a full horn section and a gorgeous descending guitar part played by D’Arby himself.
Symphony’s second half kicks off on a much darker note; “Castilian Blue,” with its menacing chord progression and swirling keyboard sounds, is a haunting tale of lost love featuring more than a few barbed lyrics—suggesting the possibility it could be at least semi-autobiographical in nature (“Black men and her commitments/she had a problem with…”). Chester Kamen provides 12-string guitar over the chorus (with more multi-tracked D’Arby vocals), and D’Arby’s drums crack and sizzle in the smoldering arrangement. A legitimate string section shows up for the introduction to “Tension Inside The Sweetness/F&J,” a cut D’Arby had recorded for the Garry Marshall film Frankie & Johnny which had appeared on the soundtrack album two years before Symphony. “Tension” is, actually, a beautiful, tender, old-style love song, with D’Arby channeling Ronald Isley over a tender arrangement. Immediately after, “Are You Happy” feels almost like a newer blues song, cruising by unobtrusively before the album’s next highlight. D’Arby announces the beginning of “Succumb To Me” by quoting Walt Whitman before the song’s driving, sampled drum beat and dirty bass line churn and rumble. “Succumb” manages to most successfully blend D’Arby’s rock, R&B and soul leanings, simultaneously managing to be funky, soulful, and heavy, with the singer’s intermittent doo-wop backing vocals sounding perfectly at home next to space-rock keyboard octaves.
After the brilliance of “Succumb,” D’Arby wisely elects to end the album on a subtle note. “I Still Love You” cleverly waltzes into the realm of country, with its jangly electric lead guitar and timely fiddle-playing (courtesy session veteran Novi Novog, who appears in various other spots on Symphony). The Blake-produced “Seasons” continues the low-key vibe, with D’Arby’s voice brought far up to the front of the mix over guitars that sound as if played through an old AM radio. Finally, the album concludes with the ethereal ballad “Let Her Down Easy,” with D’Arby accompanying himself on piano while gentle synth strings float nearly-imperceptibly in the background. The song would later go on to be a D’Arby live staple for decades, and with good reason; on it, he manages to avoid some of the obvious sentimentality he employs on many of his other ballads, while still presenting an earnest, beautiful, emotionally sincere story; it’s a tender, gorgeous ending to an eclectic album.
It’s a shame, then, that so few people actually heard it. Despite a considerable marketing push by D’Arby’s then-label Columbia (including some spins of “She Kissed Me” on modern rock radio and TV, even landing them a review on Beavis & Butt-Head), Symphony failed to make a noticeable commercial impact. Columbia parent company Sony shunted D’Arby to another subsidiary (Work Records), which released the solid Vibrator in 1995 to minimal fanfare. The ensuing six years consisted of a protracted battle with Sony to be released from his contract, a subsequent ill-fated signing with producer Glen Ballard’s Java label, and—most notably—changing his name to Sananda Maitreya. It was as Maitreya that he released the confusingly-titled Terence Trent D’Arby’s Wildcard! in 2001, and how he continues to release and perform music today. Based out of his new home in Italy, Maitreya briefly attempted an American comeback in 2003 on Wildcard that garnered critical acclaim but, alas, not enough commercial attention to vault him back into the pop spotlight. Fortunately, the sheer strength of his past-and-present musical catalogue—including Symphony Or Damn–is enough to guarantee his status as a musical icon, if only to people that were paying attention in the first place.
A. Darryl Moton is a freelance writer/Iowan/curmudgeon attempting to escape Portland, Oregon.