Previously wildly out-of-print, My Secret Studio - Volume 1 by Bill Nelson is now back out again thanks to the fine folks at Esoteric Recordings, an imprint of Cherry Red Records. The 4-CD set collects 4 hours of music made by the ultra-prolific musician between 1988 and 1992. The set, once nearly impossible to lay your hands on, offers up what I'd argue are nearly-essential recordings from the one-time leader of Be-Bop Deluxe.
While 3 of the 4 albums containted in this box set were available on their own before, it wasn't as if they've been easy to find in the last 20 years. And, obviously, the same goes for the entire set itself. Originally released in a limited run, My Secret Studio - Volume 1 remains a marvelous showcase for the maturing talents of Bill Nelson from a period of time commonly described as quite difficult for the musician. However, for an artist so perfectly self-contained, little obvious outside drama seeps into this music. This is, instead, the stuff of Nelson's heart, soul, and mind transcribed quickly in his home studio. That said, it's a set of 4 albums that hold up remarkably well and which should surprise long-time listeners and new(er) fans who might remember these releases as being full of half-finished cuts. The truth is the opposite; so much here sounds finished, if lightly produced, and this listener for one was so happy to hear this stuff again and find out that my memory had been wrong as this stuff is great, and -- dare I say it? -- so much better than what I had recalled.
Disc 1 is Buddha Head and it's full of what one could argue is the most direct release in this set. Stuff like "Killing My Desires" and "Big River" bubble with the sort of bright Eighties production that graced 1986's Getting The Holy Ghost Across [released on these shores as On A Blue Wing]. The tunes here are marvelously put together and one doesn't get a real sense that Nelson was going through a lot of drama in his personal life, frankly. Still, "The Heart Has Its Reasons" glows with the kind of self-assured awareness that his best instrumentals from this era possessed, while "The Big Illumination" gets at the larger questions of life that have always concerned this guy. Nelson, as always, had a way with getting extremely serious but never pretentious. There's a lightness of touch here that, as always, astounds.
On Disc 2, Electricity Made Us Angels, Nelson more clearly links up these vocal recordings with his mid-Eighties instrumental records. Stuff like "Sweet Is The Mystery" and "Ocean Over Blue" pair Nelson's soaring guitar lines up with supple bass-heavy backing tracks. On these numbers Nelson is in his element, the music echoing stuff from the previously-mentioned Getting The Holy Ghost Across. At times here, on tracks like "Wonders Never Cease", Nelson reveals himself not only a great guitarist but a fine vocalist,, the vulnerability in his voice something listeners can be forgiven for not picking up on previously.
Deep Dream Decoder, Disc 3 here in My Secret Studio - Volume 1, contains tracks that reminded me a lot of the stuff on The Love That Whirls (Diary Of A Thinking Heart). Now, I say that knowing that the cuts here have none of the buoyant new wave styles of that classic 1982 album but, really, bouncy numbers like "Golden Girl" and "God Bless Me" see Nelson completely at ease, his myriad ideas contained here in concise alt-rock packages. The noticeable progression here on Deep Dream Decoder is his comfort at deploying more rhythmic material ("Dreamnoise and Angel", "Wing And A Prayer"). Nelson sounds totally comfortable on these tracks, his spiritual concerns finding homes in these bursts of alt-pop, even as he veers into material that might make a listener think of Shriekback numbers.
Disc 4 of My Secret Studio - Volume 1 is the one release that was probably the rarest of this lot. Juke Box For Jet Boy offers up some of the most accessible material on this box set: "All You Need To Know" shines oddly like an INXS single from the era, while the spry "Only Dreaming" pops with the kind of vibe that China Crisis brought to their more mainstream material. The bounciest CD in this set, Juke Box For Jet Boy should surprise some fans as it reveals a Nelson nearly touching the mainstream. Of course, he was doing that from the safety of his secret studio, the risk-taking here really for his own pleasure primarily.
Full of revelations and surprises, My Secret Studio - Volume 1 is a wonderful thing to have back in print. The efforts of those at Esoteric Recordings and Cherry Red Records are to be applauded. The one risk Bill Nelson always ran was that some of his artistic endeavors would be neglected since he produced so very much music. That said, out of that huge body of work, some stuff should by necessity rise to the top. And, hopefully, with a little fanfare applied, these marvelous albums and this expertly-curated box-set will see a wider audience now. Certainly fans of his earlier new wave classics and those who gravitated towards his late Eighties instrumental records should find much here to love, the albums bridging multiple periods of this artist's enormous output. More perfectly realized than lots of what Nelson put out in this era, the 4 albums on My Secret Studio - Volume 1 remain essential time capsules of this guy's prodigious talents. Spectacularly inventive, concise, and full of flashes and flourishes of guitar glory, the albums here are uniformly wonderful.