Baxter Dury was the five-year-old urchin standing alongside dad on the cover of Ian Dury’s groundbreaking 1977 debut album, New Boots and Panties!! He has forged an intriguing career in the slipstream of his father, who died in 2000, two years before Baxter’s own debut album Len Parrot’s Memorial Lift.
As with many musical offspring, similarities are superficially striking in both voice and style – a very particular confluence of spoken word and limber grooves utilising London vernacular to spin offbeat tales with darkly comic, surrealist edges. Baxter is no wannabe Blockhead, however, with 2017’s acclaimed Prince of Tears showcasing a mature artist less reliant on dazzling wordplay and more focused on mood and character. He continues the good work with sixth album The Night Chancers, a set of seductive, atmospheric late-night grooves on which Dury conjures sinister vignettes of insomniac dwellers of the wee small hours. This is a sleazy, and slightly over-familiar, world of dodgy geezers, jilted lovers, deluded fashionistas and social media stalkers chasing elusive highs as the last strands of clubland spill out into the street.
If you are going to forgo melody for spoken word delivery, it certainly helps if you have a distinctive tone. Dury’s voice is appealingly thick and low, with the slightly affected dropped h’s and glottal stops of a mockney thespian – think Danny Dyer doing Harold Pinter. Dury does not demur from being described as mockney, as it happens, noting in a recent interview, “I guess that’s what I am. I’ve got a Goya painting. But my grandfather was a boxer and drug dealer.”
At 47, there is a swagger in Dury’s presentation that leaves you intriguingly uncertain how much he is sending himself up. He essays the provocative ambiguity of a Pinteresque lounge lizard prone to evasive circumlocution and parodic gangsterism. “Charm dripping like fresh honey/ I’m the Milky Bar Kid/ Soiled trousers/ Shiny cheekbones/ Like graveyards in the sun/ Murder shoes/ Dirty eyes/ Sizing up.” The gravity of Dury’s voice is deliciously sweetened throughout by the deadpan harmonies of Madelaine Heart, often playing Greek chorus to Dury’s protagonist. On Slumlord, she can be heard blithely dismissing his monologue as “scary people saying silly s---”, and while it is not that facile, it's not a million miles from the truth.
There has been a noticeable rise of spoken word in pop recently. Although it has perhaps been empowered by hip hop, most of it doesn’t bear strong comparison with the rhythmic and verbal intensity of rap. The new strand of song recitation is more literary in character and yet formal in structure. It has been particularly effective in a vibrant punk scene that arguably developed from Sleaford Mods' electro ranting to inspire fierce, crowd-inciting bands such as Idles, Fontaines DC and The Murder Capital. But discarding melody puts extra load-bearing strain on lyrics. There is so much focus on the words, you really have to make them count. In this respect, Dury remains a minor poet.
There are elements in Dury’s work reminiscent of the way Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave use spoken blues recitation but he does not aspire to their audacious heights, content with something quite minimalist and niche. Dury reaches back to a more superficial but no less entertaining strand of unsung song, not just via his father’s funky, punky oeuvre but also brooding Gallic disco of Serge Gainsbourg (Dury even employs erotic gasping as part of the rhythm track of Samurai) and the commanding club rhythms and stark pronouncements of Grace Jones. It is a kind of literary dancehall, where words provide decoration for the beats and it doesn’t matter so much what is said as the way it is spoken, occasionally leading to such unfathomable utterances as “Dream what it used to be like on the bakelite staircase where I will preside” on the narcoleptic Sleep People.
Produced by Dury with long-time collaborator Craig Silvey (Arcade Fire, Arctic Monkeys), the backing tracks are a joy, evoking a nostalgic melting pot mix of Sly and Robbie reggae, Island disco, new wave funk and lo-fi synth pop that could be dropped very neatly next to Ian Dury and the Blockheads at an early Eighties student disco. Each song is built on an unfussy yet nimble bassline and, honestly, it is a pleasure in this era of digital earbud pop just to hear bass being given some proper space and respect.
“Say nothing, say nothing,” the female chorus sings as The Night Chancers winds to a close, apparently leaving its narrator stretched out next to a motorway, rain falling on his lifeless body for reasons never made apparent. It is a coda that reflects the beguiling opaqueness of Dury’s writing. Thankfully, the bassline is eloquent enough to fill in any mysterious gaps in the narrative.
The Night Chancers is released by Heavenly Recordings on March 20