After Mansun split acrimoniously at some point in 2003, midway through recording sessions for their fourth album, all communication between the former bandmates was reduced to a cycle of hopeful rumours followed by bitter rebuttals while the main man himself, Paul Draper, seemed to disappear off the map, if you weren’t paying close attention. Those who did, though, became part of a strong community of vocal supporters, connected through online forums. Mansunites continued to meet up regularly, holding conventions where Mansun tribute acts would perform authentic cover versions, and devotees would seek out any hint of activity from the former members – ever hopeful that more would come from a career that seemed to have been painfully mismanaged after the most promising of starts.
Rumour-mill grew into ever more honest and open interaction from Draper himself, teasing the existence of solo material as early as 2013. He continued studio work as producer on a number of projects, including notably ex-Skunk Anansie singer Skin’s second solo record, and singer/songwriter Catherine A.D., who would later change her performing name to The Anchoress. She worked closely with Draper on her Confessions of a Romance Novelist record and the long awaited solo album from the man himself. Spooky Action came out in August 2017, to the delight of his dedicated fan-base. Shortly afterwards Draper announced this tour: playing the entirety of Mansun’s 1997 debut album Attack of the Grey Lantern, with all the bells and whistles sampled from the original session tapes.
I do like the idea of a full album show, especially when, years on from the record’s production, the technology has improved to the point where artists can add elements to the performance that were impossible the first time round. In many ways Mansun were a band ahead of their time – their first two albums both had the whiff of contemporary prog about them: overriding themes, sympathetic keys, and instrumental passages connecting the songs together. With Attack of the Grey Lantern they also sold over a million copies and had five hit singles, which is no mean feat for any debut album. Somehow, amongst all the moneyed noise of the 90s music industry, their success at the time was not seen as much of a big deal, especially when their fan-pleasing follow-up Six struggled to make as big a mark, commercially. Judging from the sold-out crowd packing out every square inch of Electric Brixton tonight, however, it’s still casting a long shadow.
For the tour, Draper has surrounded himself with a group of young, talented players, who provide an energetic backbone to support his performance expertly. On each night of the tour the band arrive early, supporting themselves with a shorter set of choice cuts from the new solo album. It’s a testament to the strength of this new work that after both nights of the tour I saw (I also made it to the opening night at The Haunt, Brighton) it was Spooky Action tracks that I found stuck in my head on the journey home. Lyrically the solo material hits caustically home to fans who’ve been party to the ongoing dispute between Draper and Mansun’s lead guitarist Chad. Whereas the Attack of the Grey Lantern era contained a song title that seemed to celebrate their partnership (‘The Chad Who Loved Me’) the new work seems to reference their fall-out with regularity (‘Friends Make The Worst Enemies’, ‘You Don’t Really Know Someone, Til You Fall Out With Them’). There’s emotion crackling in the air tonight as Draper sings ‘Friends Make The Worst Enemies’. It’s a triumphant moment, coming at the end of a tour that’s certainly had its ups and downs (including a show in Nottingham that went decidedly egg-shaped). Tonight his voice was in spectacular form, and from that promising opening set, Draper and band sailed through the full-album rendition with aplomb.
There’s something quite amazing about being in a room full of over 1,000 people, where many are as capable of reciting the lyrics to a little known album track as they are belting out the familiar choruses of hits like ‘Wide Open Space’ and ‘Taxloss’. Seeing the show for a second time it hit home even more deeply how well suited this album is to being performed in its entirety, it flows beautifully from track-to-track, with ‘Dark Mavis’ working delightfully as an epic, emotive closer. The album even came with a ready-made encore/disclaimer in the secret track ‘An Open Letter To The Lyrical Trainspotter’, (“The lyrics aren’t supposed to mean that much/they’re just the vehicle for a lovely voice”) which the band storm out to perform to an ecstatic crowd after a suitable pause.
Whereas the Brighton date still had a more intimate feel, with a smaller capacity, and a few slight creases still left to iron out in the set, this felt like a true triumph and in many ways the end of a new beginning. For, although Draper is already making eagerly received mentions of a forthcoming Six tour, with this step he has completed a dynamic reboot of his musical career – at least the side of it where he fronts the band and sings like a bearded angel on-stage! Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited for Six, it was my favourite album of the entire 90s, but I’m more excited for more solo material. Draper was one of the most prolific writers of the Britpop era, I’m sure he’s got a few more songs tucked away. I shall be keeping a close eye!