When people who smoke ganja all day consider you strange, you may be a little strange. Or, to put it another way, the myth of the mad genius has been well worn at least since the Romantics (not to mention a source of frustration for those who’d like to see a realistic approach to mental illness); but sometimes a figure comes along who reminds us of the reason for the existence of a particular trope, and Lee “Scratch” Perry is just such a figure. Like many oddball savants, his output has never been less than patchy, but the high points (and I mean high points, though Perry is now sober) loft on incense-fumed clouds to such an exalted plane that they continue to sustain the legend as it rises from misfires and passes dead-ends. Identifying the apex of Perry’s output would take an infinite number of reggae obsessives typing on infinite discussion boards for an infinite amount of time, but personally I’ll plump for: Family: his production work for others; Genus: the 1970s; Species: The Congos (indeed, the refrain from The Congos’ “Can’t Come In” is revived here on “Scratch Message”). Many would suggest that one of Perry’s foibles — apart from burning down the legendary Black Ark Studio — has been to slather too much of his later work with his own meandering thoughts — always interestingly bizarre, but often less than vital — and to fail to exercise quality control over his oeuvre. The first of these flaws is not in evidence here, but the second… well, you’ll have to wait.
But, Flaws?, I hear you ask? On an album not only from the venerable Scratch, now in his mid-70s, but also featuring Renaissance bassman Bill Laswell, dub icon Sly Dunbar, P-Funkster Bernie Worrell, TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, and the haunting vocals of Ejigayehu “Gigi” Shibabaw? Gentle reader, I was as excited as you to hear a new work from the dub master, and, appropriately, it upsets me to tell you that there is a deeply impressive EP to be found on this album. The opening half features one killer bassline after another over hypnotically “troubled rhythms” (as Dick Hebdige put it), horns and keyboards just hinting at melancholy, while Perry murmurs (occasionally breaking into a line of song) in a tone in which the warlike and sexual arrogance of earlier personae has given way to a rough-edged yet childlike singsong both unique and mesmerizing. It’s impossible not to feel a great deal of affection for such an iconic, eccentric figure.
The lyrical concerns are for the most part what one would expect of the Rastafari tradition, that is, Marcus Garvey, Haile Selassie, and Biblical quotations set in a framework of pride, resistance, and pan-African diasporic concerns: “a spectacular resolution of the material contradictions which oppress and define the West Indian community” (Hebdige again). But Perry brings to these themes his own inimitable approach, transforming them into something just a little stranger than the fundamentalist literalism so often associated with apocalyptic prophecy. Free association (or should that be ‘Lee dissociation’?), for example, brings to light the echoes of postcolonial resistance: “I conquer death/ I conquer Beth/ I conquer Elizabeth/ I conquer Prince Charles.” Haile Selassie rises not only from the dead, but out of Scratch’s own head, prefiguring the way in which the psyche of the believer (and not only the religious believer) shapes reality such that the source of the vision is invisible to the witness.
So far, so flawless. Unfortunately, from the straightforwardly-titled “African Revolution,” things take a turn for the lackluster. While the riddims remain addictive, this alone can’t carry the songs. Ironically, it’s the lack of Perry’s vocals — which take backstage to a series of generic deejay/dancehall cameos, repetitive and didactic dispatches, and sub-catchy melody lines — that sees the album as an endeavour burst into flame. Particularly bizarre is the closer, “Inakaya (Japanese Food),” a paean to the mood-enhancing qualities of the cuisine. The only redeeming moments are on the skeletal, elemental “Butterfly,” and “E.T.,” which proclaims Perry’s quintessentially paradoxical identity as ‘Jamaican Extra-Terrestrial’ while reprising Max Romeo’s Perry-produced masterpiece “I Chase The Devil” (as famously sampled by The Prodigy, who thereby managed only to demonstrate their own musical shortcomings).
On his 1995 track “The Madness of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry,” fellow maverick Nick Currie (a.k.a. Momus) somehow connects the dots between Rastafarian reggae, Wallace Stevens, Picasso, and schizophrenia. In the tender Scottish pervert’s gnomic self-reflection on the song, he draws the conclusion that “having pushed his medium into a dangerous new area of distortion” and failed to return to the land of the sane, “we must consider [Perry] happy. ” But, we might selfishly ask at the risk of over-egged expectations, what about our own auditory happiness? What indeed?