Several years ago I was at the Royal Albert Hall for the annual Jools Holland gig. Support acts are sometimes a bit hit and miss, but that year it was stunning.
I’d never heard of Imelda May, and this was her first performance on the big stage. From the moment she walked on she had the audience of 7,500 people eating out of her hand. Not only was the music fantastic and her voice immense, but she commanded the stage with a charisma that, I think, took everybody by surprise. It’s not every support act that you want to keep going at the expense of the main act, but in this case she could have done another hour.
I’ve just (finally, and after meaning to do it for a year) got her album Mayhem. It is superb. The songwriting ranges through love and loss to eternity and sadness via a psycho and a prayer. Even a waltz finds its way through the energetic rockabilly and her voice is perfect. But, what struck me (as it would) is the insight you get from one song into spirituality. Proud and humble is a prayer, a confession, one that stands in its simplicity with the openness of a Leonard Cohen. Here’s a stripped down studio version of it:
Like Cohen, she holds together the honest reality of human living in which we try to be godly, but get it wrong a million times. It’s Cohen’s ‘holy and broken hallelujah’ – the two held together in a confusing life that drives us through passion and prayer to some sort of muddle. But, again like Cohen, she doesn’t make excuses for ‘living’ and all that’s involved in milking life’s opportunities for love and laughter – even when they lead to pain and tears.
Oh, I made the most from what I knew then / But if I lived it over I’d do the same again / I try, I try for You to please / But you know I’m only human, You created me.
She recognises humility at failed attempts to be holy, but can look God in the eye and say, “But, at least I lived.” There’s something here about the parable of the talents in which the guys who risked losing their deposits got praised and the one who buried his in order to protect it from harm got damned. The song concludes:
Well I’m humbled by You and thankful oh Lord / Istudied Your life and Your holy word / But I hold my head just a little high / ‘Cos I’m proud that I got on with this given life.
That’s not arrogance; that’s honesty. Life is for living. And Imelda may have understood it better than some of us.
Whatever. The whole album is brilliant. Not one weak song. And Marc Almond’s Tainted Love is painted in fresh colours while Johnny got a Boom Boom just makes you want to dance.