No happiness to be had in Coxon's newest solo effort

by Carl Burnett | 1/27/05 6:00am

I have a bone to pick with people who call music like this "pop." If pop stands for "popular music," Graham Coxon's new album, "Happiness in Magazines," is not pop because it's just not catchy enough. Actually, it would be hard to believe if anyone cared much about this album at all.

Coxon left the group Blur two years ago after playing guitar for the Britpop legends since their inception in the early '90s. This is his fifth solo album -- the first few were released before he left the band.

Luckily, Coxon proves surprisingly competent on any instrument, and he's a decent singer, too -- keyboards and strings are the only instruments he recruits guests to play. And on "Happiness in Magazines," he's enlisted an ace producer in Stephen Street, who worked on the first few Blur albums.

Furthermore, "Happiness" doesn't stray far from the mid-'90s Blur template -- a mix of classic Brit-rock (as on the opener "Spectacular"), the occasional punk-ish barnstormer ("Freakin' Out") and the odd pastoral elegy ("Ribbons and Leaves"). The formula works as well as it always has.

The problem is the lyrics.

Usually, the words are not the most important part of a rock song. No one would be foolish enough to claim that the Steve Miller Band's "The Joker" is a bad song just because it contains the lines, "Some people call me Maurice / Because I speak of the pompatus of love." It takes egregiously bad songwriting for me to take notice.

On this album, I noticed. One of the worst offenders is "Girl Done Gone." Howlin' Wolf and Leadbelly may have kept things simple, but they never resorted to the sort of moon-spoon-June clichs that Coxon employs here: "I really need you, need you to lead me through / I wanna know you, know you will be so true," he sings.

On "Spectacular," he rhymes "computer" with "cuter" and "shooter" with "stupor?" The narrator of "Bittersweet Bundle of Misery" has choice words for the object of his love-hate relationship: "You're really cool, I love the way we fight right through the night." (He likes her, and yet he also hates her, get it? Crazy, right?)

Most of the 13 tracks on "Happiness" aim to make clever, Ben Folds-y observations about people Coxon knows, or wishes he did. But unlike Folds, Coxon doesn't really know what to say about them. Instead, he just mocks them safely from a distance.

The most unintentionally hilarious track has to be "People of the Earth," in which Coxon channels an extraterrestrial observer berating all the earthlings: "People of the earth, you are bland / You ain't even got a decent band." Graham the Superior Alien's major beef with humanity, apparently, is that we all have poor taste in music.

There are exactly two bright spots on the album. On "All Over Me," Coxon uses metaphor and abstract imagery to sketch glimpses of a relationship, an irrational fear, a benediction. Layered over an acoustic guitar, a propulsive rhythm and a competently arranged string section, the song is a keeper.

"Ribbons and Leaves," the only other track worth listening to, is a collection of Coxon's fragmented memories of "going through my Granddad's house after he died." In spite of a trite, unexpressive chorus, the song's glacial tempo and slow, feedback-laden guitar line give it a subdued and slow-burning power.

In the album's press release, Coxon explains that "Ribbons and Leaves" ends the album because he "couldn't really imagine going from that to another song." Predictably, someone has undermined Coxon's intent by tacking a raucous, utterly forgettable bonus track onto the end of the U.S. version.

If it weren't for this asinine decision, I might have left "Happiness in Magazines" with the sense of having spent an enjoyable 45 minutes listening to a sub-par Blur album. Alas, the last song jolted me into remembering just how unbearable most of the album was.