Recently reissued by AED records for Record Store Day 2014, Roddy Frame’s 2002 album Surf is a slow- burning masterpiece that everyone should hear, argues Philip Cummins
…I’ve written an album about day-to-day life in London; about being 38 and wondering what you’re going to do next.
RODDY FRAME claimed the above in a 2002 interview with the Guardian’s Will Hodgkinson prior to the release of Surf, his second solo LP proper. Hodgkinson interviewed the then 38 year- old Frame, best known as the wunderkind behind Aztec Camera, in his Notting Hill flat where he wrote and recorded all the songs on Surf, his masterpiece.
Taken from atop Burwash House on Weston Street, London SE1, the cover photograph by Hannah Grace Deller (Frame’s then girlfriend), depicts the London skyline in all its twilight beauty. To my eyes, the picture captures London on a dreary Tuesday night in November.
In this photograph, as in Frame’s songs, life is going on in other places: the focus is very much on the switched- on lights in rooms across the city. In the context of the bare instrumentation on the songs collected on Surf- solely voice and acoustic guitar- Deller’s photograph, if anything, feels like a point of view shot from Frame’s mansion- block apartment.
Surf opens with ‘Over You’, a finger- picked tune that conveys a rejected lover’s restlessness in the wake of a breakup. As mentioned in relation to the above quote from Frame, the album itself constantly gives a sense that life is continuing in other places across London in spite of the songwriter’s craft of focusing- in on frozen moments in time. No better an example than the line ‘heard you were out, SW3 / talking about how you were over me. Similarly, the song’s final couplet (Me stuck on the strand, trying to get through / And make myself understand that I’ve gotta get over you) provides the perfect starting place for the albums’ succeeding 10 tracks.
Surf‘s title track slows down the pace ever so slightly. Arpeggio’d chords and long vowels in the lyrics give a the sense of yearning that Frame’s lyrics convey.
Again, however, the focus is very much on London albeit viewing the city, now, through welled- up eyes (The east end squares’ve grown cold and loud / since I lived there with the twilight crowd / The west end lights have lost their wow).
Frame captures that sense of alienation in the city, of being a small fish in a huge pond and craving intimacy, beautifully in the chorus of ‘Surf’ (When I was young the radio played songs for me / it saved me).
‘Small World’, best known as the theme tune from hit BBC comedy series Early Doors, ends an opening trio of songs that nail the tone of the record, lifting the mood just slightly. Frame’s peppers Hopper- esque images of night-hawks in London town throughout the lyric and his voice is simply stunning on this song; his effortless falsetto blending beautifully with the verses, sung in lower octaves. Like ‘Tough’, ‘Small World’ was , perhaps, mooted as a possible single.
‘I Can’t Stop Now’ is one of the most important songs on Surf and a song that is at the thematic core of the record. Serving as the breaking point of the tension built up in the record’s opening side, ‘I Can’t Stop Now’ is a good example of Frame’s ability to judge the timing of subtle changes in the dynamics of a song. One of the most cathartic and climactic lines in the song (’til the first tear falls) stands alone from the busy opening verses, giving that line more emphasis and more weight. Similarly, the key change in the final chorus is beautifully timed and renews the tone of the chorus; where the listener heard desolation and sorrow in the previous choruses, the listener now hears a tone of acceptance and defiance in the same chorus, two steps higher. It’s a stroke that only a singer and a songwriter of Frame’s talent and experience could pull off.
Throughout Surf, Frame wears his influences lightly, though obvious exceptions are…well, obvious. Paul Simon looms large on Surf. On ‘Abloom’, which also has qualities in the chord patterns and the finger- picking that recall Nick Drake, there is a hypnotic quality in the rhythm and harmony; there is a jazz-y feel to it. Simon, however, is also there in ‘High Class Music’, the title of which also carries Simon’s influence in its sardonic use of demotic language. The opening finger- picked phrases of each verse immediately recall Simon’s ‘The Boxer’. Add in a fast- paced abab rhyme scheme and Paul Simon’s influence in Frame’s writing is undeniable.
Furthermore, Simon is there again in ‘Mixed Up Love’, one of the stand- outs from Surf; the descending scale of the verse is quite similar to the intro to Simon’s ‘America’. ‘Mixed Up Love’ encapsulates everything that Frame claims about “…being 38 and wondering what you’re going to do next.” in his Guardian interview. The end of the chorus, just as in ‘I Can’t Stop N0w’, contains a wonderfully placed spoken line at the chorus’ end: you’d think that I’d know better now.
Finishing on ‘For What It Was’, Frame exudes the kind of simplicity and concise song-writing only found in country music. There’s a soulful, gospel quality to ‘For What It Was’, rich with spiritual imagery and Frame’s own confident, wry voice (And if the prophets knocked my door with all that heaven held in store, / I’d probably ask to see a sample).
Not since Paul Simon’s Hearts and Bones nor Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love has there been an album by a singer- songwriter that has explored themes of love, heartbreak and identity as skilfully and masterfully as Roddy Frame has on Surf. It is hard to think of an LP from the last 10 – 15 years that is so masterfully crafted, so fully realised, so enviably achieved.
So has Surf been unfairly overlooked? Of course it has, though it’s easy to see why. In 2002, the music press was still feverishly high over the so- called new rock revolution, of which only Jack White emerged as a true, world-class, all time talent. The Strokes burned themselves out, the less said about the also- rans the better.
Coldplay, too, had just launched A Rush of Blood to the Head, their best record to date, which took them directly into the big leagues. Combined, Chris Martin and Co.’s world- beating aspirations and the distortion- heavy sounds from New York, LA and Detroit drowned out the fragile, modest tones of Frame’s Surf.
If it was Frame’s ambition to freeze 11 moments from London’s bustling, restless and constant metropolis, he succeeded admirably, capturing that sense of heartbreak, of loneliness and relentless self- examination like few songwriters before him. Surf is, quite simply, one of the most moving, spellbinding and memorable collection of songs I have heard in recent years.