Who the fuck is Nikki Sudden? And why would a small indie label in Bloomington, Indiana, nearly go bankrupt reissuing 10 of his albums from the '80s that never sold well in the first place? Unless you're eternally tuned to your local college radio station, you probably don't know that Sudden is a former punk trailblazer turned rock revivalist and balladeer, one who inspires both irrational fanaticism and excessive hatred. The press in his native Britain has scorned him for decades--Melody Maker called him "the wretched Nikki Sudden"--while American media have simply ignored him. (For some reason, he still plays to ecstatic crowds in Germany.) Indeed, Sudden's wayward whine, sloppy chords and ridiculous attire can be hell on the senses, but Secretly Canadian's reissue campaign--10 LPs spread over seven CD sets, complete with non-album B-sides, a couple of dozen unreleased songs and videos--promises to shed new light on just what makes Sudden so fascinating.
Although there's no one quite like Sudden, it's impossible to discuss him without talking about other artists. He borrows chords from Neil Young, moods from Alex Chilton and lyrical swagger from Marc Bolan while coming across as early-'70s Keith Richards at a Renaissance Faire--all dainty scarves, shaggy hair, frilly sleeves and velvet suits. But as silly as Sudden may appear, his best work infuses this rock iconography with a ragged, experimental edge.
After the dissolution of his avant-punk group the Swell Maps, Sudden recorded 1982's Waiting on Egypt and the following year's The Bible Belt, which make up the first two-CD set. Waiting seems tame coming after the reckless abandon and eclecticism of the Maps, with a basic rock format that sticks too close to Johnny Thunders' milieu. The Bible Belt is richer and folkier, with layers of mandolin, cello and acoustic guitars and help from Mike Scott of the Waterboys and fellow fashion victim Dave Kusworth (Sudden's future collaborator in the Jacobites). Still, Sudden's attempts at wimpy funk and bad honky reggae show he hadn't quite arrived as a solo artist.
The next double-CD set skips ahead to 1986's Texas and 1987's Dead Men Tell No Tales, both originally released on the hip Creation imprint. Co-produced by Sudden and his brother Epic Soundtracks, Texas is a masterpiece. Like Young's After the Gold Rush or the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers, Texas holds together as a damaged, atmospheric take on Americana. At this time in rock history, Sudden was nearly alone in referencing Brian Wilson's Smile album ("Dumb Angel/Stuka") or playing cinematic violin-led instrumentals ("Depper's Bridge") back to back with weepy pop songs. With Texas, Sudden achieved a vast but raw sound that rarely was matched in the heyday of overproduced rock.
Dead Men Tell No Tales is even more naked and desolate. Focusing mainly on Sudden's unpolished singing and acoustic guitars, this underrated album is about love hitting the skids hard. Sudden's knack for not quite reaching the proper notes--in much the same way as his idol Chilton did--adds an off-kilter edge that's addictive.
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While it acknowledges Sudden's numerous missteps and tangents, this reissue series showcases an artist with an impressive body of work. There's more to look forward to as well. The next set of reissues is due in January and will include his brilliant mid-'80s albums with the Jacobites. Meanwhile, Sudden detractors and neophytes should take a good listen to Texas and Dead Men Tell No Tales. Sudden's fevered devotion to rock-and-roll dreams, flowered scarves and wistful melancholy transcends all shortcomings.