Winter Spring

Review and analysis by Mel Powell


Winter Spring has already been described as the best Pete and Clive album for beginners. I would certainly agree that the combination of Pete's beautiful melodies and orchestration, the contemporary production values and Clive's new and more limpid lyrical style makes it their most accessible offering yet. But what's in it for the long-standing Atkin/James enthusiast, especially those who relished the very differentness of their songs from what is available in the mainstream?

In my view, there are several interesting developments here for the seasoned fan. Clive's sparer writing style has two important effects. Firstly, the relative reticence seems to free up space for Pete's music to do what it does best — establishing the tone of the piece when the words leave this open, and grabbing the song's emotional drive and taking it forward so that it seems to go beyond what words can say.

Secondly, the greater simplicity and more sparing use of allusive detail poses a new challenge to the would-be interpreter. On first listening to the album, it seemed to me that this just made the link between personal experience and universal truths clearer than ever. I had to revise this view (and subsequently this review) in the light of Clive's insights into the specific situations which had inspired the lyrics during the Winter Spring tour, which made it clear that there's nothing like apparent simplicity for throwing up different and apparently contradictory interpretations. But interestingly, interrogating these contradictions simply reveals another level of meanings which reinforce rather than alter my view that this is their most thematically unified album yet.

It is a mature album in all the best senses of the word. "The past is another country" is a good turn of phrase, but bettered for me by the further observation that to be old is to feel like an exile in the present. I still feel at home in the present most of the time, but increasingly the world of contemporary music makes me feel like an exile. No doubt if I had children, I would by now be embarrassing them by emerging from behind the newspaper during Top of the Pops to complain that there's nothing with proper words and a decent tune any more. It goes far deeper than not particularly liking Girls Aloud. It's more that there is nothing at all there which relates in any way to my experience of life.

The concerns of later life — getting older, striving for a balanced life, appreciation of what makes life beautiful sharpened by consciousness of the approach of death — were always unlikely to provide the subject matter of mainstream rock, especially when it was being written and performed by artists publicly avowing they hoped they'd die before they got old. Pete and Clive have always been unusual in choosing to deal with more serious themes. As we know, the world-view of the lyrics was informed by early experience of death and loss, and the resulting perception of life as particularly precious. In this most recent album, though, these themes emerge more clearly than ever.

Although apparently the content of Winter Spring falls neatly into the categories of elegiac love songs and fun songs, with a run of more allusive songs towards the end of the album, I believe there is an underlying thematic thread which unites the whole album.

It makes sense to start with the title track. As with several of the other songs, one of the subtleties of Winter Spring is in the gradual way its possible levels of meanings unfurl in performance. Clive introduced this at Hebden Bridge as simply about a winter/spring relationship — "the older man/younger woman relationship fabled in song and story, and an unbeatable way for a man to make a complete idiot of himself." Certainly on one level the song describes the inevitable ending of a May/December affair, with the narrator personified as Winter and the younger, loved one as Spring. Several elements elsewhere in the lyric seem to support this view, especially the final whispered words from The Hunt for Red October: "This meeting never happened. I was never here", which suggest the poignancy of an illicit relationship in which even the final parting is accompanied by denial and the need for an alibi.

But there are also several elements which support a different, more universal reading. The vividness of the image of the crocus cupping the snow suggests that we are hearing about winter and spring as real, not metaphorical. How could it happen that winter will not be followed by spring in this particular year?

The clue is in the third verse: "My hands were cold and now they're cold as cold can be/I fold them to my chest and turn away". The placing of his hands suggests not an attempt to warm them on a cold day, but preparation for burial.

So the song could also be about "how the world will be/when Winter comes without a Spring that I will ever see", as JRR Tolkien puts it in I Sit Beside the Fire and Think (Bilbo's Song). Winter will not meet spring because the narrator will not live to see the change of seasons, and the final words "this meeting never happened. I was never here" make sense in the context of an imagined conversation between the two seasons which he will not be there to witness.

Interpreting the song as being about an individual's death opens up the additional resonance of a parent (winter) saying farewell to a child (spring). This works well with the third verse (she could not have been so beautiful without him), and the crocus's cup of snow in verse two, which sounds like a little floral ice-cream cone.

Why else might winter and spring not meet this year? The answer is that the disjunction of the seasons is not in an individual's consciousness of events, but in reality — in other words, that a universal disaster has interrupted the flow of the seasons and the return of life and beauty with the spring.

Within one deceptively simple lyric are all these possible meanings — lost love, anticipation of one's own ageing and death, and the love of beauty which is intensified by the knowledge that it must be lost through time, be it one's own death or a more universal catastrophe. These themes seem to me to recur to provide a coherent underpinning for the entire album.

Even the two 'fun songs' are simply a comic rather than a serious reflection on the process of ageing and particularly on the effects of excess over time, whether it's success or amplifiers which go all the way up to 11. So Loud I Couldn't Hear It answers the question of what happens to rock gods who hope they die before they get old, and then, unaccountably, don't. Just like us ageing academics, there's a risk that they may never die but simply lose their faculties. In this case, the plangent criticism of the ageing star's oeuvre, which the critic had probably mulled over for years and longed to deliver, and which, if given earlier, might have increased the old rocker's royalties as well as salvaging his hearing, literally falls on deaf ears.

Fat Cat, on the other hand, holds out the hope that after a life's hard graft, the success and plaudits might enable you to attain a state of serenity and contentment on a par with that enjoyed by the average domestic moggy. I love the Fat Cat song, not least because Mike has often expressed an ambition to be reincarnated as a cat for the very reasons given in the song — "free of the worry/of the world of men/never in a hurry/never has to work again". It's another song which works well in performance because of the way the comparisons illustrating the fatness of the cat start out with "fatter than me" (which by definition is the starting point for how we define obesity, whether human or feline) and then keep on getting bigger, suggesting that the cat's expansion continues even for the brief duration of the song. "Spoiled by the applause/he once got up to take a bow/but he couldn't do it now" suggests that the song could as easily be about the serene life open to the human celebrity resting on the laurels of past glories, roused to action only by the promise of a bit of ligging and freeloading, as about the enviable feline world of the sofa and the catbed, where the only interruption to the inaction is prompted by the sound of the tin opener.

Moving back to the serious content of the album, the love songs have an elegiac tone, reminding me of Thomas Hardy's later poetry. Thought Of You fits the bill of 'emotion recalled in tranquillity' perfectly. In comparison with other lyrics, there's an avoidance of individualising detail: instead, the concentration on the physical, visceral effects of memory, as if in a controlled experiment in self-diagnosis, makes this simultaneously a very internal song (we are in there with the thought) and very universal (we've all felt that way about someone, and tried thinking of them to see if it still hurt). Like Manon Lescaut, whose exact appearance is never described or Charlie Brown's little red-headed girl who is eternally out of the cartoon's frame, the loved one is shown only in terms of the protagonist's reaction to her — and so can be identified with the listener's own 'you'. And how perfect the positioning of the instrumental break is — lifting the hearer onwards into the feeling of being overwhelmed ("the sea rolled over me") before the return to reality "when the thought of you retreats."

An Empty Table and I Have to Learn are even more Hardeian, contrasting the permanence of the physical world with the transience of love. Just as for Hardy, the burnt patch in the grass from last year's picnic is the catalyst for memories (in Where the Picnic Was), here the trigger is an empty café table. I particularly like the third and fourth verses, in which, having described himself as a solitary figure gazing at the empty table, the narrator holds out the hope that he and his love might one day be back together at the table, looking back at 'the solitary men/who stop as though they see themselves when they were not alone and then/they see us looking back and walk away.' It's as if his present self is a ghost being seen by his past self, or the future self he hopes to be again, as part of a happy couple. Turning the tables, you might say. (Hardy, elsewhere in the Poems of 1912-13, also uses this technique of envisaging how he must appear to onlookers, a strange man apparently staring at an empty beach whilst he struggles to see again his first wife as he first saw her, a young girl reining in her pony at the water's edge.)

'Calling solitude my great romance' links this song with I Have To Learn, a simple reflection on the difference between wanting to be alone and having your wish granted.

Daughter of the Sun is another apparently simple song which conceals different and apparently contradictory interpretations. A listener in a Western cultural context is likely to hear it as I did initially, as being about sunburn or about getting burned in love. The double meaning works beautifully throughout: both excess of sun and excess of lust are expiated in lying awake at night burning, whether with heat or shame. However, "You don't have to rub it in/Just pour it on and let it begin/To soak its way through your thoughts" seems to be more about reflection and repentance than After-Sun.

However, Clive's introduction during the Winter Spring tour revealed that the song alludes to a specific incident in an entirely different cultural context — a young woman doused in petrol and set alight by her father in order to punish her for having an affair. And of course, the words work equally well in this context, especially if the lyric is heard as Daughter of the Son — a woman defined by her place within a patriarchy. However, I don't think that an awareness of the contradictory meanings diminishes the song. Rather, they prompt us to reflect on the underlying themes. The sun is the source of life and beauty, but too much of it is painful and can ultimately be fatal. Sexual love is equally a natural source of life and inspiration but can also lead to pain and expiation, in whatever cultural context. The implied question of whether this is best addressed through a system of beliefs which offers the individual the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them through reflection and the workings of conscience or through prohibition and punishment is left for the listener to answer.

So, on to the sequence of songs which seem to me to form the thematic core of the album. Winter Spring itself, of course, followed by A Hill of Little Shoes. What can you say about it, except that it's almost too painful to listen to, apart from the beauty of the music — and of course, the pleasure which many MVs will share, of hearing the early promise of that lyric heard first at Buxton come to fruition at last. It tells, simply, all you need to know about where the world-view which informs these lyrics and those of earlier albums came from.

Prayers Against The Hitman offers three exquisitely-worded vignettes encapsulating moments of natural beauty. It's reminiscent of Perfect Moments, but those were recounted simply 'to take the sting out of the other stuff', and we were told it doesn't work that way in any case. Here the perfect moments are invoked against the Hitman. Who is he? The bridge passage tells us:

He'd like to stop the spring
And everything
He's working on a gun
To hit the sun.

'Stop the spring' takes us back to Winter Spring, in which the failure of spring to follow winter suggests both personal death and universal destruction. The Hitman could be the figure of one's own death — but more broadly, it is any force which threatens to curtail the beauty of life and our enjoyment of it. Time, human evil, Thanatos, our own tendency to disregard or destroy our own environment, or just not to seize the moment. That was how Walter de la Mare expressed a very similar feeling:

"Look thy last on all things lovely
Every hour: let no night
Seal thy sense in deathly slumber
Till to delight
Thou hast paid thy utmost blessing"

The point is that every conscious celebration of beauty strikes a blow against the Hitman. Stopping to appreciate it is effectively a prayer against all the forces which threaten it, whether they are around us or within us.

I've left The Dancing Master until last rather than classifying it with the other love songs, because of its complexity. Once again, an apparently simple lyric is open to changing interpretations. Clive's disingenuously humorous introduction at Hebden Bridge presented it as simply being about a tango teacher. "Tango teachers tend to be men in advanced middle age — it's a way of getting hold of a younger woman without the police coming." He went on to add however that if you go to a tango hall, the smart money is on passing up the chance to dance with the young women and leading out one of the older ones, because it is they who have mastered the art through many years of practice.

So, once again, we apparently start off with a Winter/Spring relationship. Listening to the first verse for the first time, you could be hearing about an affair which involves regular, pre-arranged meetings.

But then "this is the step we'll learn tonight" confirms that it is a dance lesson — but wait, the narrator seems to be in love with his pupil. And for the rest of the song we are moved by the music and the lyrics through a series of shifting perspectives which prompt the question which often comes to mind when we watch a couple dancing the tango — is it art or is it love?

So many of the words used to describe the dance lessons have erotic resonances — the pre-arranged meeting, the woman undressing and getting dressed again, the whispered instructions. Even the idea of waiting — for the next meeting or for the partner to make the next responsive move — calls up the idea of two people who are sexually as well as physically attuned. And the injunction "come back slowly in your own time" sounds like a philosophical acceptance of the tangential nature of the relationship.

It is this tension between what is actual and what is desired that gives the song its edge. Passion, after all, is a source of pain as well as pleasure for us and those who are close to us, but it is what makes us alive. The title — the Dancing Master — can be read not just as a man who gives dance lessons, but one who has achieved mastery over his own desires and therefore mastered life. By keeping his desires in check, he cannot have what he wants most, but he can keep her in his life. The result is a degree of acceptance and serenity: "I have enough to last me".

In its subject matter, the song is reminiscent of Thirty Year Man — both protagonists are artists, the older and the younger — but with a key difference. In the earlier song, the goal is recognition and acclaim, denied the older but accorded to the younger, so the mood is torn between desire and anger. In this one, the goal is the dance itself, and the protagonists can be true partners in the context of their art, if not in any other.

The dance, like any art form, offers a space separate from the real world where perfection can be attained through practice and the shortcomings of reality transcended and forgotten. "This is the world where I will never die/or lie awake for what I'm going through".

Art is the ultimate Prayer Against the Hitman. It's an area of human endeavour in which, in defiance of the normal rules of time and ageing, it is possible to go on getting better through practice and experience. With this album, it seems to me that Pete and Clive have given convincing proof of this, with Clive in better lyrical form and Pete in better voice and with lovelier melodies and orchestrations than ever. In this sense, it is a Winter Spring indeed.

See also Peter Fenelon's review of Winter Spring, as posted on Amazon.

Pete Atkin icon

Back to the Pete Atkin home page