Mark Ludmon reviews Dusty Limits’ new album, Life & I
Life & I
The first time I stumbled upon Dusty Limits, he was in a theatre bar singing heart-breaking songs by Jacques Brel about broken dreams, regret and lost love. World-weary beyond his years, he has gone on to become one of the biggest names on Britain’s cabaret scene (while apparently never ageing) but he remains a performer drawn to the dark side, finding life-affirming wit in the bleakest of topics.
With his latest show, Mandrogyny, entertaining audiences at Edinburgh Fringe till 12 August, Dusty has released a new album, Life & I, packed with songs old and new, written with long-time collaborator, composer Michael Roulston. It reflects many of his influences over the years, from Weimar Berlin to Noël Coward to KD Lang, with a mix of upbeat comic songs, soulful laments and political agitation.
His style is most aptly displayed in the opening track that gives the album its name, a jazzy swing number about desperately clutching at a few positive straws to carry on in the face of constant calamity. For Dusty and Roulston, the way to deal with life is not just to drink more wine but to turn adversity into song, which is also the theme of another bitter-sweet toe-tapper, “High Heels by the Sink”. This is an artist’s lament, drawing on what sounds like personal experience of self-doubt and clinging on to hopes and dreams in a world of fake blood and glitter.
Cockney music hall inspires “A Lovely Day”, a jaunty, saucy lesson in making the best of what you’ve got from the perspective of a lad having a gay old time while earning a few extra quid. A queer perspective runs through the album, from the comic storytelling of “In Confidence”, about telling a woman that her husband is gay, through to “MSM” which combines the elegance of a polka with a less-than-subtle chorus of “cock” to look at the wide definition of “men who have sex with men” without identifying as gay.
This is one of several hits from Dusty’s shows to now be captured for posterity on this album. “(Don’t) Help the Aged” is a deliberately shocking anthem glorifying self-interest and boiling with anger at the baby-boomer generation, in a style that recalls Coward. The Master’s voice is also an influence on another of Dusty’s popular cabaret songs, “The Clash of Civilisations”, a rousing sardonic attack on war-mongerers. Political commentary informs the bluegrass-style “Polar Bear”, ironically celebrating American social policy that opposes abortion, with a battle cry of “Get your clothes off, people, and make some babies now!”
Death and existential angst are never far away. In “My Dear Dead Lover”, he ponders the lack of a sense of loss while lingering over the corpse of his lover while he meditates at a funeral over where atheists go when they die in “Heaven or Hell (or Highgate)” – both sung with a lightness of touch alongside a plaintive violin. Drama and sadness infuse other tracks such as “Nightfall”, “Goya” and the closing “Narcissus”. The soulful torch song “Unter Den Linden” conjures up a wintry Berlin in the 1920s l, where love is briefly found and lost, accompanied by an insistent café orchestra sound.
With Roulston on piano, these studio recordings shift from the richness of a jazz band through to the more pared-back, intimate accompaniment of piano and violin. Confirming Dusty Limits as the bastard child of Coward and Kurt Weill, this new album is an eclectic collection of songs filled with wit, sadness and wine-fuelled moments of hope and joy.
Dusty Limits: Mandrogyny runs at The Voodoo Rooms at Edinburgh Fringe to 12 August.