|1. Three Of A Perfect Pair|
|2. Model Man|
|4. Man With An Open Heart|
|7. Dig Me|
|8. No Warning|
|9. Larks' Tongues In Aspic, Part III|
All tracks written by King Crimson. All lyrics by Adrian Belew.
When originally released, Three Of A Perfect Pair (1984) was given a rather ambivalent response from King Crimson fans. To some, the album was conclusive proof of the band's drift towards commercial pop territory, as evidenced by Adrian Belew's song-oriented material on the album's first side. For others, the rather disjointed union of the album's two sides was proof of some fundamental disorganization within the band [an opinion recently repeated by the Trouser Press Record Guide]. Many interested observers were of the opinion that the band had lost the plot -- and no doubt felt vindicated when KC dissolved not long after their tour to promote the album.
Since the reformation of KC in 1994, opinions toward 3oaPP have tended to be more balanced. With the benefit of hindsight, Belew's poppisms no longer seem quite so dangerous, and the division of the album into two semi-autonomous sides seems an accurate reflection of the band's status at the time. Most web-connected Crimson enthusiasts now seem to recognize the album a credible release, if not a career highpoint. And most would probably agree that the album is something of a hidden gem in KC's catalogue, underrated and still somewhat underappreciated.
... but Robert Fripp would not be a part of this consensus.
Fripp's recent discussions on Three Of A Perfect Pair indicate that he has not entirely come to terms with the album. Once, when a fan commented that Beat and Three Of A Perfect Pair were mere replicas of Discipline, Fripp took issue with this assessment ... and, in the same breath, wished that it were correct. By Fripp's understanding of the events in question, the band that had triumphantly emerged upon the music scene in 1981 with Discipline was veering off-course on its two following projects. More recently, he has also commented that the live Absent Lovers release is probably the only album that young KC enthusiasts need purchase to become familiar with the early '80s band.
Fripp's assessment is undoubtedly somewhat biased, and is probably more sensitive to perceived weaknesses in the band than the views of most outsiders. Nevertheless, his comments do point to a fundamental problem with the Three Of A Perfect Pair album, which has not disappeared with the passage of time: the album was a testimony to the confusion in the band at the time, and is an indication that they weren't quite following through on their creative intentions. That much should be obvious to anyone who listens to the album. But this assessment leads to another question: how important is the state of the band's constitution for an appreciation of the album, from an audient's standpoint?
The answer, it would seem, depends upon how the band was failing to follow through with their intentions.
I'm sure Fripp would take issue with this, but I would argue that the band's constitutional troubles allowed it to create some of the best music of its '80s incarnation. And I'd also try to demonstrate this by way of analogy with another troubled album from KC's past -- 1971's Lizard.
Fripp's recent criticisms of Lizard have, of course, made his musings on Three Of A Perfect Pair seem like the syncophantic flattery of an ambitious courtier in comparison. Shortly after completing the remastering process of the album, he referred to it as an abysmal failure, most suitable for clearing out loitering guests at parties. He's also referred to it, on many occasions, as the result of a period of extreme confusion within the band. It may not have been an accident that the lyrics to the "Lizard" suite focus on the upheavals of the English Civil War -- there were clearly more than a few leveling tendencies at work on the King's constitution, at the time.
But what were the fruits of this confusion? I would argue that Lizard, with its dazzling timbric colours and multifaceted musical surprises, is one of the best releases of KC's career. The first three tracks on the album, as well as most of the "Lizard" suite which follows, rank among the most ambitious music that the band has yet created. And of course they represent a form of musical confusion -- not simply in the free-form jazz ethos which permeates much of the album, but also in the apparent lack of a centre around which the music can be focused. But this resulted in a work of fierce and defiant beauty, all the same.
To some extent, this same defiance can be found on the second half of Three Of A Perfect Pair. Divorced from their pop leanings, the '80s Crimson ensemble were able to go all-out into free-form assaults on traditional concepts of harmony and polite composition. It isn't quite "beautiful" in the sense that the Lizard tracks were, but it's still ambitious music that should move the equally ambitious listener. In a sense, it represents the best of what the band were capable of.
The instrumental track "Industry" probably represents the pinnacle of this approach. After a base support is set in place by Levin and Bruford, the music literally explodes in all variety of directions, with all four Crims showing the full limits of their creative side. "Dig Me", the track immediately following, is no less incredible in its execution -- with lyrics from Belew describing an abandoned auto wreck, it's the perfect illustration of how pop forms can be almost completely subverted (even the relative straightness of the chorus section just makes the surrounding music appear all the more strange). And, following this, "No Warning" marks another leap into uncharted territory.
"Larks' Tongues In Aspic, Part III" is sort of the odd-man-out of the second-half tracks, in that it's obviously more of a through-composed track than the others. There's some free-form material here (particularly in the opening guitar solo), but much of this track shows a bit more focus than the rest of the side. For the most part, this isn't a bad thing -- Belew's guitar lead in the middle section of the song is one of the best riffs of his career. Unfortunately, the slowed-down section of the extended fade-out takes the track down a little bit -- it's not as bad as some detractors have claimed, but it does overstay its welcome by at least a minute. Still, it seems an appropriate enough end to the side -- and, in retrospect, to this particular lineup of King Crimson.
The majesty of the album's second-half was, to a large extent, facilitated by the relative separation of the album's pop and progressive habits. The unfortunate side of this separation, of course, is that the pop material on the first side of the disc was deprived of some of its more interesting features.
The dichotomy isn't absolute, of course. There are still a number of interesting effects throughout the side, particularly the digital-effects solo in the middle of the title track. But are some low points too: "Man With An Open Heart" is one of the weaker songs in KC's catalogue, due mostly to a degenerative effect in Belew's lyric-writing tendencies (ie. on Discipline, Belew wrote really clever lyrics; on this song, he really doesn't). "Model Man" is a decent pop song in its own right, but still seems like "slumming" material for the Crimson band. The band does seem to show a bit of irony about this track, though; there's a moment towards the end which seems the perfect location for an extended solo -- instead, it's quite noticeably left empty.
Not all of Side One comes up disappointing, though, as "Three Of A Perfect Pair" and "Sleepless" prove to be very successful pop songs. The former is nicely constructed, even aside from its mid-song diversion; the multi-tracked vocals in the verses, moreover, give the lyrics a direct tie-in to "I Wonder", from Belew's Twang Bar King album (1983). "Sleepless", for its part, may actually have benefited from the pop/prog division -- the multi-layered instrumentation of the song is clearly rooted in pop sensibilities, but still works out to be one of the most moving passages on the album.
And then, in the middle of the album's fissure, there is "Nuages (That Which Passes, Passes Like Clouds)". It seems fairly obvious that this track was meant to stand apart from both sides, overseeing the divisions from a semi-detached standpoint. Although thematically closer to the second half of the album, it was positioned on the first side for the original vinyl release -- and even aside from this, the track doesn't quite seem to mesh with the chaotic advances of Side Two. In a sense, this track could almost be regarded as an updated version of "Prince Rupert's Lament", conveying a wordless paean for the shattered unity. Perhaps not surprisingly, this is also the track most thoroughly dominated by Fripp's trademark guitar tones.
[Of course, on a more practical level, it should also be noted that the track is a revision of "The Sheltering Sky". Fittingly, it isn't quite as successful as the source material.]
Perhaps there are to be lessons to be drawn from this album, and from the overall history of the '80s Crimson band.
When a band's creative energies can be successfully channeled in a relatively holistic way -- as per Discipline -- they should be directed accordingly. When a disruptive force (such as market pressures, divisions in personnel, or unwarranted expectations) enters onto the scene, the band might be best advised to channel its failure in the most interesting manner possible. Whether intentional or not, the division of Three Of A Perfect Pair represents a compromise of sorts, allowing both elements to be developed in isolation. One wonders, however, if it might not be more productive to jettison any hope of "balance" in these situations, and to simply highlight the more interesting side until the equilibrium returns.
And, in fact, the recent emergence of THRaKaTTaK and the ProjeKcts after the compromises of the THRAK album might indicate that Mr. Fripp senses the benefits of this course, whether he knows it or not.
Two additional comments:
In the final assessment, this album is an important release in the KC catalogue, and should be a part of any true fan's collection. Newcomers, however, should still begin their exploration of the '80s band with Discipline.
(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 9 May 2000)