Terence Trent D’Arby’s ‘Symphony or Damn’ Turns 20
On May 11, 1993, Terence Trent D’Arby released his masterful third album, ‘Symphony or Damn.’ In a perfect world, this genre-blending record would have cemented D’Arby’s popularity and status as a musical alchemist worthy of comparisons to Prince.
Sadly, that was far from the case, at least in America. While the record spawned several hits in the U.K., it barely raised a ripple in the United States, effectively ending any chance of D’Arby returning to the chart success of his debut, ‘Introducing the Hardline.’
The singer and multi-instrumentalist exploded onto the scene with that highly polished, eager-and-able-to-please collection in 1987, with instant soul classics like ‘Wishing Well,’ ‘Sign Your Name’ and ‘If You Let Me Stay’ dominating airwaves around the world. It seemed as if a new superstar had arrived.
Problem was, D’Arby also quickly garnered a reputation for self-acclaim that rubbed both fans and critics the wrong way — most famously, declaring ‘Hardline’ as the best album since the Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.’ The knives were out and ready to kick off the backlash when his second album, 1989’s ‘Neither Fish Nor Flesh,’ was released. Although the album largely succeeded in exploring new, diverse and subtle musical territory without sacrificing melodic appeal, it was also panned as pretentious and over-indulgent by many. (Our take: just skip the overly artsy first three tracks; you’re in good hands after that.)
‘Neither Fish Nor Flesh’ bombed, and as he told Q magazine a few years later, other problems mounted for D’Arby. “At the time of ‘Neither Fish Nor Flesh”s non-performance in the marketplace — I believe that’s the expression — every single thing hit me at once. Legal situations, financial situations, the mother of my daughter and I were splitting up, everything. I was naked, I had no place to go. But now I genuinely feel that ‘Neither Fish Nor Flesh’ was not only the best thing that could have happened to me but the only thing that could have happened to me. If it had been successful, I would have missed that opportunity to get on the train that was pulling me out of the situation. If that album had done as well as the first one, I would have lost out ultimately.”
After moving from London to Los Angeles and regrouping, D’Arby emerged four years later with ‘Symphony or Damn,’ a dazzling tour de force which somehow expands upon the experimentation and exploration of ‘Neither Fish Nor Flesh’ while at the same time regaining much of the accessibility of ‘Introducing the Hardline.’ It’s a wonderful stew of rock, soul and R&B featuring all the real-world grit missing from pretty much every Prince record except ‘Sign o the Times.’
There’s also more rock and roll influence revealed this time around, from the opening Hendrix-inspired blast of ‘She Kissed Me’ to the woozy guitar of ‘Penelope Please’ and the almost Zeppelin-ish trudge of ‘Wet Your Lips.’ If the Red Hot Chili Peppers had released an album like this after ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magic,’ the world would be a much better place.
Other highlights — and as you could guess, we could go 16-for-16 here — include the winding Bob Dylan-esque narrative ‘Turn the Page,’ the James Brown rave-up ‘Baby Let Me Share My Love,’ and the spare, closing ballad ‘Let Her Down Easy.’ But top honors go to ‘Succumb to Me,’ an irresistible, churning seduction number full of pulsating bass and psychedelic, swirling keyboards. The song’s lyrics finds D’Arby promising his intended romantic conquest that he can “make you hear the delicate bells all around you.” (Great line, don’t try it out on your own — somewhere 13 years later there’s a woman in NYC still laughing her ass off.)
Prior to the release of ‘Symphony or Damn,’ D’Arby — speaking in the third person — forecast his own permanent departure from the mainstream. “If this album doesn’t do well, Terence Trent D’Arby as we perceive him is gone. He’s had his shot. The only way I could survive it is to come back as a more manufactured thing and I couldn’t do that. So I’d have to look for something else to immerse myself in. I really don’t know what that would be but I’m astonished by the lack of fear on my part.”
He proved true to his word a few years later, dropping out of the major label rat race and changing his name to Sananda Maitreya after releasing 1995’s less-than-inspiring ‘Vibrator’ album. He currently lives in Italy and continues to rather quietly release albums on his own label, the most recent being 2013’s ‘Return To Zooathalon.’
Hear Terence Trent D’Arby Perform ‘Succumb to Me’
Watch Terence Trent D’Arby Perform ‘She Kissed Me’