As you will know if you’ve read any of the previous entries in this series of posts, I’m currently counting down my seven favourite albums of all time, having been inspired by Danny Baker’s Great Album Showdown on BBC4. Over the past couple of days I’ve revealed that my seventh- and sixth-favourite albums of all time are Eels’ Blinking Lights and Other Revelations and REM’s Up, respectively. That means that today it’s the turn of my fifth-favourite to emerge blinking into the limelight, and that album is…
Released in 1994, Jollification was the band’s third album, and the first to be released under the name Lightning Seeds (previously records had emerged under the name The Lightning Seeds – the band have varied between the two forms of their name ever since, in a way guaranteed to drive precision-obsessed people like me crazy…). It reached number 12 in the UK charts, and remains their best-selling studio album to date.
Jollification is an out-and-out pop album (mainly filled, as its name suggests, with bright, breezy songs), and it has to be judged accordingly – there’s no point looking to this kind of record for beard-stroking introspection about the nature of existence. Pop is an undervalued genre, partly because the sort of people who write about music prefer beard-stroking to dancing as a social pastime, but also because so much pop is dreadful – empty, meaningless sounds deployed by cynical accountants in suits to con money out of gullible people who don’t really like music, and so can’t tell the difference between what’s good and what’s bad. This album is the antidote to all that – a collection of ten songs of sustained quality that make you want to sing along, or dance, or just sit there with an idiot grin plastered across your face. It’s a shot of aural joy, with just the right amount of light and shade to make you appreciate it for what it is.
Most bands, if they opened an album with a song they’d labelled perfect, would be guilty of bragging, or at least of promising more than they could deliver, but not (The) Lightning Seeds. Their ‘Perfect’ is exactly that – a song you initially think is going to be a little slice of mellow whimsy, a man in a happy relationship reflecting on how perfect everything is, but then you find your attention drawn to words like ‘lies’, and before you know it you realise you’re listening to a man telling you he’s been ignoring the ‘danger signs’. It’s musically very intricate as well – starting off with something a little like psychedelia updated for the era of MIDI strings, morphing into guitar-driven pop, morphing again into something like rock, and then back again. And such a strange choice for the opening track, too. 99 bands out of 100 would have chosen to open the album with the big, emphatic song ‘Lucky You’ that is actually placed second, relegating ‘Perfect’ to somewhere less conspicuous – the first track of side two, maybe. That they place it first is a sign of confidence, but also important to the overall success of the album – the contemplative introduction that sets you up for the bouncier stuff to follow.
I mentioned updated psychedelia in that last paragraph. As artists and bands from Liverpool tend to be, (The) Lightning Seeds are involved in a kind of negotiation with the legacy of The Beatles on this record, but it’s a negotiation conducted in subtler terms than is typical. The ghost of the older band is present here – most noticeably on ‘Punch & Judy’, but also in the harmonies and middle 8 of ‘Feeling Lazy’ – but in a genuinely new context. (The Beatles would never – could never, given the technology available to them – have included the programmed drums on the second half of ‘Punch & Judy’, for example.) Music progresses by appropriating and reinterpreting what has come before – just as The Beatles appropriated and reinterpreted skiffle and early rock & roll – but it has to be done in a spirit of creative adventure, not slavish imitation. The 1990s revival of The Beatles’ sound, as spearheaded by Oasis, was mainly imitative, and it’s (The) Lightning Seeds’ ability to be creative instead that ensures this album doesn’t lapse into tedium during its Beatles references.
If creative reinterpretation of the past is one of the hallmarks of a great album in any genre, one of the hallmarks of a great pop album is that it’s made up of a succession of songs, all of which sound like they could have been a standalone hit. Run-of-the-mill pop albums, in contrast, will tend to feature filler material which – no matter how good the featured songs are – will hold the album as a whole back from greatness. Jollification gave rise to four singles, but that doesn’t mean it had been fully mined of all potential hits.
Of the remaining tracks, ‘Open Goals’ veers close to tweeness at times (‘wishes swam like fishes in my head’), but is built round a solid groove that more than carries it through. ‘Why, Why, Why’ is more synthpop than a typical song by (The) Lightning Seeds, and it has a lead vocal supplied by Marina Van Rooy rather than a regular member of the band – either of those facts might have led to its being discounted as single material, but it’s more than catchy enough to have been a hit. ‘My Best Day’ is the kind of duet (with Alison Moyet) that could have sold well, although its frankness about sexual infidelity might have made daytime radio play tricky, and the obvious musical references to early Acid House (as it used to be called…) were quite dated, even in 1994. Really the only song on the album that would have struggled as a single is the very short song ‘Telling Tales’ – but since that was obviously written to close the album rather than stand alone, that’s perhaps not a surprise. (It’s also perhaps not a surprise that ‘Telling Tales’ is the only song on the album that hasn’t been uploaded to YouTube.)
There’s little doubt that, across their career as a whole, (The) Lightning Seeds are a (very good) singles band rather than an album band – tellingly, they’ve released almost as many compilations as studio albums. And these days, of course, they are best known for ‘Three Lions’, the England football song which is …not their finest work, and has warped perceptions of the band to the point that many people think they’re about nothing more than lager and laddism.
There are big, bold singles on this album, too – ‘Change’ and ‘Marvellous’ – but, unlike elsewhere, they don’t stick out from their surroundings. (The) Lightning Seeds would be one of my favourite bands even if they’d never released Jollification, but they wouldn’t have been in even remote contention for my favourite album. 1994 was the moment in their career where it all came together, and – for ten perfect songs, and around 40 glorious minutes – a great singles band became a great album band. Jollification is that great record – a bold, bright pop album that opens by promising perfection, and delivers it with apparent ease.
So, that’s my fifth-favourite album of all time – Jollification by Lightning Seeds. Come back tomorrow to find out my fourth-favourite. If you’d like a hint, I can tell you it was released in the same year…