Going back to 1982, the complete album discography of London’s Ed Ball as the leader (at times, sole member) of the modpop-turned-rave-then-techno Times numbers well over a dozen; add in two albums of early work as the Teenage Filmstars, three more by his pseudonymous solo dance machine, Love Corporation, one by the Conspiracy of Noise (a violent rock collaboration with the singer of Extreme Noise Terror) and miscellaneous “side” projects like L’Orange Mechanik, and you’ve got a shelf full from this eclectically talented co-founder of the Television Personalities, a man who, for a time, made his living playing in the Boo Radleys and working as a Creation Records staffer. Amazingly, none of Ball’s work has ever been released in the US.
Thanks to the lack of album attribution, as well as inscrutable selection logic and mad sequencing by compiler (and Creation boss and one-album Times member) Alan McGee, novices won’t be able to glean much more than a random sense of career highlights from the two CDs of Welcome to the Wonderful World of Ed Ball. As an introduction, it’s a delightful journey that leads those not already familiar down a blind alley. The primeval “We Love Malcolm” (a 1978 rewrite of a Television Personalities song by the pre-Times O-Level) follows a 1993 dub track that mixes raggamuffin toaster Tippa Irie into a Scritti Politti song. Whoa! The Times’ ingenious mod kernels (1983’s “I Helped Patrick McGoohan Escape” and “This Is London”) are set next to more modern bits of whimsy (like 1989’s scene-ribbing “Manchester” from the acid-synched E Is for Edward) and theatrical ambition (“Up Against It,” the title track of an album based on Joe Orton’s rejected script for a Beatles movie); among the stranger juxtapositions are a delightful (if badly pronounced) French version of New Order’s “Blue Monday” next to eleven endless minutes of Love Corporation’s club-pumping “Give Me Some Love.” This hodgepodge won’t encourage many converts from the vast audience segment that has never encountered Ball’s amazing adventures in style, but those who have some idea of his unchartable course will find plenty of times to enjoy. (For fans of early London twee-pop, however, the O-Level reissue — half of which is actually by the Teenage Filmstars, a subsequent Ball band with head TV Personality Dan Treacy — provides a much smarter and focused treat.)
If a Man Ever Loved a Woman is, then, Ball’s first official solo album. A subdued acoustic epitaph to a relationship, the poignant folk-pop record is painfully heartfelt; after all the years of erecting facile constructions in whatever idiom strikes his momentary fancy, Ball is so accustomed to artifice that revealing himself risks emotional overexposure. Joined by such musical associates as Andy Bell of Ride, Nick Heyward, Idha, McGee and the Boo Radleys, Ball — sounding like Ray Davies at his absolute worst — pours it all out in desolate postmortems like “She’s Just High Maintenance, Baby,” “Firehorse,” “A Ton of Blues” and “It’s Kinda Lonely Where I Am” (twice). Shoehorning unmediated lyrics like “When we were together there was never victory, only varying degrees of defeat” (from “You’re an Idiot Babe”) into uninspired melodies makes for songs that could be lifted straight from answering-machine messages. Despite flashes of art in the writing and unfailing aptness in the presentation, Ball is so clearly overwhelmed by misery that he can’t find much music in his pain.