By Bernard Zuel.
JOHN KENNEDY’S LOVE GONE WRONG- Always The Bridegroom (Foghorn)
In one of the reissue iterations of his 1984 album, Goodbye Cruel World, London’s Liverpool-born Elvis Costello began the liner notes with the welcoming phrase, “congratulations, you’ve just bought our worst record”.
His views on the album, and the experience of making it – not to mention, and by no means coincidentally, the state of his life at the time, with a marriage ending, a “bit” of drinking, difficult intra-band relationships and intrusive musical celebrity sucking joy out of being a musician – didn’t really improve through his mini essay.
There’s some debate now among fans if this verdict is correct, but at the time of that CD reissue, some 15 years after GCW’s initial release, this view was probably widely shared. At least when graded on a curve, given the extremely high standard of the album’s preceding it and the career reformatting albums which followed it.
In the liner notes for this reissue of his 1987 album, Always The Bridegroom, Brisbane’s Liverpool-born John Kennedy, a man not unfamiliar with Costello comparisons (nor with the other Liverpudlian’s mix of pop, country and soul, and occasionally sardonic lines masking romanticism) titles his essay, The Album That Killed My Career.
True? Strictly speaking, no, as Kennedy is still recording, playing and – clearly – reissuing.
More accurately, you could say it preceded a stalling in Kennedy’s career, with his band, Love Gone Wrong, disbanded soon after the release (as happened to his earlier group, JFK & The Cuban Crisis, after their first album – and interestingly, as happened to Costello’s band, temporarily, after GCW), Kennedy relocating to Europe for several years, and the nascent semi-major label/world-here-we-come plans, scuppered permanently.
Perhaps not surprisingly, as he explains in his essay, Kennedy long had a difficult relationship with the album: its “failures” more prominent to his ears, its aftermath more telling in his mind, and he strenuously resisted a reissue, until now.
Like Costello’s eventual verdict (on a later reissue of GCW – yes, I have them all, ok? – he said “I am able to say now that it is probably the worst record that I could have made of a decent bunch of songs”), Kennedy’s take has become more nuanced over time (“These songs may not be as dear to me as others, but they are an important part … of my story.”) without exactly turning to love.
But the question remains, how does it stand up? What does this collection of country-accented pop, played with a regulation band given extra twang, and sometimes brass, with a mid-album burst of gospel (the standout, raise your hands, shake your robes, Better Days) rate now?
On balance, I’d say the answer is not that dissimilar to the one on Goodbye Cruel World.
That is, the songs feel solid and sometimes like outright winners and if you ever spent time in a small to medium venue in 1980s/early ‘90s Australia (especially ‘80s Sydney) this will be as comfortingly familiar as slipping on an old band t-shirt.
The Singing City could have found its way to territory occupied by Things Of Stone & Wood (that intro always makes me think of Happy Birthday Helen), as might the horseriding-rhythmed Hey Steven, just as much as a loping World Upside Down (the one with brass) might have been borrowed by Lighthouse Keepers, and the traces of the Monkees-as-a-country-band, When Evening Comes, would easily have fed into the various bands of Canberra’s Hayes brothers.
Similarly, there were a dozen bands back then playing lovely jangle-and-melody tunes like Stay and Hope Takes A Holiday, though most of them would have had one or two, not a dozen or more over time like Kennedy. And of course, it’s contractually impossible to talk about Australian songwriters making local references casually but crucially, without raising the spectre of one P. Kelly (though Kennedy would go much further down that route than you see here on other albums).
Even without the addition of the live-on-radio disc, which has brighter sounding takes of some album tracks and a bunch of older and non-band songs, and four bonus tracks which include the surfing Christmas single Run Rudolph Run, history will be kinder to this Always The Bridegroom than both Kennedy’s memory and the original reviews.
(Several of those reviews are included in the booklet: thoughtful, disappointed ones alongside almost comically harsh responses like one declaring Kennedy’s dancing and haircut anathema to enjoying his songs. It’s pretty clear Kennedy isn’t hiding or pretending with this reissue.)
But Kennedy wasn’t wholly wrong. there’s definitely something which holds Always The Bridegroom back from complete satisfaction, and like Goodbye Cruel World, I think the answer is a sense of a band and singer not gelling, and a tone that feels mentally – more than physically – tired.
You get that right from the start with the album slow to get going, almost as if side two was being played first. There are sharper sounding moments as the album progresses, but the zest never really materialises.
It’s not exactly tempos, but it’s not exactly not either; it’s not the playing, though no one really stamps any authority on any track; and while you can’t fault the production in any obvious way, you can’t single out any clear moves that push a decent song to be better, or a good song to go higher. It’s as if nobody in the room was completely sold on the package and the accumulation of that missing one or two per cent from each contributor became the crucial gap.
Maybe, as the live recording shows, the band might have found that connection over time. Maybe then Kennedy might have felt emboldened to kick on harder. And maybe he would have hooked into the zeitgeist in a way that would put him in the beloved rather than fondly remembered category in 2021.
Who knows? What we do know is that this never was the album that killed his career. And that’s a good thing.