Television was the satisfying result of a clash between two disparate styles. Leader Tom Verlaine was the dreamer, playing sinuous guitar and singing in the strangled, intense voice of a young poet. Guitarist Richard Lloyd and the rhythm section of Billy Ficca and Fred Smith tended more to classic, bash-it-out rock’n’roll. When Verlaine went solo, many assumed he’d simply float off into the ozone.
Surprisingly, he managed to preserve Television’s delicate balance and even add new elements on his first solo LP. Two tortured, driving mini-epics — “The Grip of Love” and “Breakin’ in My Heart,” a classic from the old group’s live sets — blend flesh and spirit perfectly. The vividly desperate “Kingdom Come” has the honor of being covered by David Bowie on Scary Monsters — how’s that for an endorsement? There’s even a playful nonsense song, “Yonki Time,” indicating Verlaine is using his freedom to grow.
With Dreamtime, however, Verlaine narrows his scope, seeming to retreat into the isolation of the familiar. There are taut, anxious tunes (“Down on the Farm”), lilting ones (“Without a Word”) and an abundance of exquisite guitar licks, but it’s too predictable. A performer who trades in passion can’t afford not to surprise.
Words From the Front shows more daring, although — like its predecessor — it suffers from inconsistent material. “Postcard From Waterloo” proves that Verlaine can be as romantic as Barry Manilow without sacrificing keenness. “Days on the Mountain” provides perhaps the ultimate in lightheaded ecstasy, with his fluttering guitar skillfully imitating the ascension into heaven.
In some ways, Cover constitutes a return to the style of Verlaine’s first LP. The songs are short and to the point, without the sometimes florid expansiveness of his previous two efforts. On the other hand, brevity doesn’t discourage Verlaine from floating into the ozone — he just does it quicker. For every “Lindi-Lu,” a fine jerky rocker, there’s two like “Swim,” a gentle evocation of airheadedness.
Co-producing Flash Light with Fred Smith, Verlaine achieves an energetic rock sound that exudes new realms of self-confidence. Meanwhile, his poetry remains characteristically brilliant. In “The Scientist Writes a Letter,” a song taking precisely that form, he writes, “It’s funny how attractive indifference can be / My sense of failure…it’s not so important / Electricity means so much more to me.” As Verlaine has developed and refined his music over the years, his urgent vocals and guitar playing (especially on “Cry Mercy Judge”) still carry the stylistically hallmarks of his old band.
Verlaine and Smith continue their subversive tryst with contemporary rock on The Wonder, concocting muscular, superficially routine arrangements in which familiar lines of wiggly guitar and other unsettling dramatics drift in and out of range. The surprisingly cozy tone of Verlaine’s self-amused vocals put his mildly offbeat lyrics in an entirely new context; combined with the music’s dynamic tension, mixed signals make The Wonder an intriguing, multifaceted experience.