Perhaps it was intentional that Barry Adamson‘s music for Carol Morley’s film Dreams Of A Life went relatively unnoticed. After all, Morley’s film is a drama-documentary about Joyce Carol Vincent, a beautiful woman with a successful career in finance and early aspirations toward a pop career; someone who was well networked with lots of friends and a surprising number of interactions with celebrities like Ben E. King, Stevie Wonder and Gil Scott-Heron, even shaking hands with Nelson Mandela backstage at his tribute concert at Wembley in 1990.
The tragic conclusion to Vincent’s life is, sadly, what she will be remembered for – found in 2006 not just dead, but decomposed, on a sofa in her bedsit in Wood Green, TV still playing BBC1 and rotten food in the fridge dating her death back to 2003. Unpaid utility bills were stacked behind her door; neighbours complained about a smell, but attributed it to the bins from the shops below. That someone could have slipped completely off radar and totally out of the system – effectively disappearing – in today’s hyper-networked times seems all the more shocking, the sense that someone with a wide circle of friends like Vincent could vanish without trace improbable somehow. The cause of Vincent’s death was never ascertained; never a huge drinker and not known to take drugs, the only link to any form of foul play was that she had stayed in a women’s refuge for domestic violence in Haringay in 2001, something that friends suggested was possible given how intense some of her City boyfriends could be.
Adamson’s soundtrack appeared on iTunes in December 2012 but I only found out about it in February when I received an email from Adamson’s mailing list advising that the film would be shown on TV that evening, with a separate link to his soundtrack. Those familiar with Adamson’s work will find few surprises here. There’s the usual rich gumbo of funky basslines, glitches, dub, ice-cold electronica, gospel outpourings (‘Tell Me’), jazzy riffing (‘Profile Of Martin’), organ grooves and noir themes that sound like something from a Seventies blaxploitation flick. Opener ‘The Investigation’ has all the grim urgency of a police drama while simultaneously evoking the mournful, pained observations of Marvin Gaye’s ‘Inner-City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)’ from What’s Going On; that track’s main motifs crop up elsewhere on the soundtrack in various different arrangements, giving the whole album a strong sense of coherence, the guitar plucking in particular giving things a folksy, introverted quality. The grandiose ‘Mystery’, complete with ghostly tones and ominous strings, perfectly matches its title’s promise, even if the counterpart ‘Mystery Atmos’ – with far-off rhythms and atmospheric textures – has the greater air of mystique, despite only dealing in semi-audible subtleties.
‘Noir (ish)’, with a chunky, phasing beat, melancholy synths and dirty funk guitars, is the closest Adamson has probably ever got to the sound of early Portishead, a band who claimed to be influenced heavily by the noirmeister, even though there was very little similarity between his music and theirs aside from a whiff of sullen mystery; ‘Noir (ish)’ squares that circle in many ways, and is one of Adamson’s most quietly assured works to date. The moving ‘Joyce Alone’, composed for piano, has a stirring poignancy, the absence of any other accompaniment other than the instrument’s natural reverb prompting you to reflect on Vincent’s three year wait to be discovered; it’s a beautiful, but deeply saddening piece. In contrast, ‘Electro Dreams’ manages to sound like a perfect distillation of Kraftwerk’s every move, albeit covered in a murky sheen of darkness, its inclusion having an urgent car-chase quality which doesn’t necessary fit with the other pieces here, even if it does highlight Adamson’s alarming musical dexterity.
While there are some really excellent pieces of soundtrack composition here, part of me thinks that it occasionally lacks a sense of seriousness and sympathy toward the subject matter. I admit freely that this might be because I’m looking at this solely as a musical response to what I’ve read of Vincent’s life; I haven’t seen the film and so it is often hard to imagine some of these pieces in context, but they just feel a little too playful at times; Adamson has a very prominent sense of humour and I sort of hoped that the challenging subject matter of the film might have curtailed that, but it’s still there, albeit in a relatively muted fashion. There’s also something about some of the pieces here, a dry quality perhaps, that reminds me of a low-budget TV movie.
A detailed piece written by Carol Morley for The Observer on her quest to find out more about Joyce Carol Vincent’s life and death can be found here. A video trailer for Morley’s movie can be found below; Part 10 of Morley’s video diary about the film, an interview with Adamson, can be seen below that.
First published 2013; re-posted 2016
(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence