Mansun never did conform: breaking in an era when labels were all about infinite remixes and versions spanning multiple formats, maximising profits from minimum material, their EPs saw albums worth of material tossed out as B-sides, many of which were as good as the A-sides and the albums which spawned them. Then, while Britpop was still all the rage, they delivered ‘Six’ – a wildly ambitious and overtly prog album. And while there wasn’t a track on their debut, ‘Attack of the Grey Lantern’, it was a struggle to radio-friendly cuts from ‘Six’ – a different sort of ‘difficult’ second album.
Divisive, even unpopular at the time, the album Paul Draper described as ‘commercial suicide’ represented the band’s creative peak. As someone for whom ‘Six’ has a special place, it’s an album I’ve played to death, and the fact this massive reissue marks its 21st anniversary places a perspective on an album I’ve been listening to for almost half of my life.
Remastered – and also remastered in 5.1 sound – it’s still a phenomenal album. It’s aged well, and if anything, sounds more comfortable in 2019 than in 1998. One of the (maybe few) positive developments in music over the last 20 years is that with an ever-increasingly fragmented culture, trends are less obvious and all-consuming, meaning that the second you step beyond the mainstream as represented by R1 etc., anything goes, and progressive, experimental, and infinite strains of music from across the board aren’t only accepted, but benefit from substantial audiences. A track-by-track rundown is likely redundant here: in summary, it’s infinite twists and turns, changes of tone and tempo, paired with its fragmentary, almost cut-up lyrics contrive a rollercoaster of an album which sprawls and leaps between ideas.
This expanded release features – as one might expect – outtakes, demos and odds-and-sods, which include alternative takes, rough cuts and other bits and bobs which strip back the mechanics of the album’s formulation, which saw the band arriving in the studio with nothing but a bunch of fragments and half-formed ideas and no actual songs. These occupy disc 2. Hearing Tom Baker complain that when the music’s in he ‘can’t hear the resonance in my cans’ before delivering the monologue which features on ‘Witness to a Murder (Part Two)’ – sans music – is quite special.
Many of the other pieces, presented here on various stages of completion and evolution, are or otherwise resemble songs which would appear on the album or attendant EPs: ‘There’s No Taste Like Heinz’ is a work-in-progress that contains elements of several songs, including ‘Six’ and ‘Being a Girl’, ‘8 Bit Drum Kit’ sounds like a Cure outtake that would ultimately be dissected and scattered throughout the album.
In contrast, ‘Where the Wind Blows’ and ‘Legacy’ are more fully-formed demo recordings, ‘Bobblehat’ is ‘Inverse Midas’, and the 12-minute alternative version of ‘Cancer’ is supercharged and while it sound largely like a slightly muffled rough mix more than an alternative version, contains even more indulgent details.
Paul Draper has explained that it was always the intention to record two albums at a time, releasing the second album across the EPs, and the parallel album to ‘Six’, entitled ‘Dead Flowers Reject’ occupies disc 3, sequenced as intended. Heard in sequence, this foces a reappraisal of the material: these aren’t B-sides, but an album and it sounds like one, crashing in with the thunking bass and meshed guitar noise of ‘What its Like to be Hated’, which has a sharp edge to it, before poling straight into ‘GSOH’: as an album, ‘Dead Flowers’ is taut, edgy, concise, and a complete contrast to ‘Six’, but also hits harder than ‘Grey Lantern’, and is ultimately a very different beast.
It’s perhaps only now, and with the benefit of both hindsight and intended context that we can really appreciate the complexities of Mansun, a band misunderstood and out of time, a band who placed artistic vision above commercial success and paid the price, a band who could’ve been the new Duran Duran with Draper’s voice and their songwriting savvy, who could’ve been Muse but were a decade too soon. ‘Visionary’ is no overstatement.