Freedom,’ like ‘democracy,’ is one of those terms that remains ubiquitous, while often meaning, as for Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, just what the speaker chooses it to mean. In the modern era, the word, referring to a Berlinian negative liberty, might indicate the individual’s freedom to make choices within a marketplace, to gratify desire without impediment.
But desire, of course, is in itself a problem. This is so, not only because of the inherent impossibility of final satisfaction (we think of Lacan, but the Buddha got there three millennia or so earlier), but also — and here we may justifiably turn (post) Freudian — in terms of its dark side, that motherfucking pleasure drive (Eros) welling up from the Id, mingling inevitably with Thanatos (the death drive), in ways that, contra Freud, need no disguising. This process produces manifestations of civilization’s discontents from pornography (as fantasy) that increasingly revolve around extreme degradation and humiliation to its counterpart (in reason), the rational-sexualized discourse of modern warfare. Barry Adamson is no stranger to the dark side of desire or to the surreal vagaries of the subconscious, as seen in his ongoing work with David Lynch and in his time as a Bad Seed and a Magazine member, as well as in his own extensive solo back catalogue and recent film, Therapist.
The opposite pole to this material freedom (as well as, presently, its ideological ally) — contributing an ostensible light to the darkness above and hence producing the shades of grey that characterise Adamson’s work — is freedom as transcendence: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Again, these Biblical echoes have a history in Jazz Devil Adamson’s oeuvre, particularly during his period as a Bad Seed. But if “everyone who sins is a slave to sin,” how does Adamson intend to set us free from sin and the lust that is father to it? If his art is any guide, the most appropriate role in which he might do so would be as a sin-eater.
So, if the Sisyphean task of setting the audience free by assuming their sins is the project at hand, to what extent has it been achieved? The album is dissimilar to what remains perhaps Adamson’s best-known solo album, the council-flat Albion-noir of Moss Side Story (1989), but it does resemble his more recent work in both genre and style, retaining the grandeur and grimness that have been characteristic of his long and otherwise varied career. Adamson’s voice is an instrument that contrasts mastery and control with flights of breakout intensity, a tool that’s both deceptively smooth (at least compared to erstwhile compatriots like Nick Cave) and completely characteristic.
None of the tunes here, though, have the play-it-again-Baz catchiness or hip-shimmying grind of tracks like “Can’t Get Loose” (and we are talking about a man who titled a song “Set The Controls For The Heart of the Pelvis”). While the lyrics at times retain the smarts and wicked humor that we’ve come to both revel in and expect (“One day I looked in the shadows/ Found there was nothing to see/ Finish your last gado-gado”), the romantic ballads more than flirt with cliché — from “I’m looking to love somebody/ Right now” to “If you love her/ Won’t you tell her/ She was everything and more when you were her fella.” One wonders whether the creative energy that went into Therapist (though heavily Lynchian, a nonetheless thought-provoking and engrossing piece), both as film and as standalone soundtrack, has leached a certain je ne sais quoi from the album.
We might conclude that, rather than a liberation from the claustrophobic worlds Adamson creates, I Will Set You Free reduplicates their quality as such on the meta level, through the medium of the album’s flaws themselves — and thereby, though he speaks with the tongues of men and devils, we experience it now only in part, as a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.