Sam Walton reckons 1997 was a great year for albums, this week he revisits one of its biggest debuts
There’s a decent argument that Mansun should’ve been the toast of 1997: after all, ‘Attack Of The Grey Lantern’ was one of only three debuts to top the album charts all year, and to give that achievement context, the other two were the Spice Girls’ ‘Spice’, released the previous November, and Gary Barlow’s first effort post-Take That. What’s more, at a time when successful new bands were thin on the ground relative to the past two or three years’ avalanche, Mansun accomplished their feat while also attempting something markedly different to most of their peers.
That they weren’t, then, and that ‘Grey Lantern’ tends to go overlooked in surveys of its era, is potentially curious. On one level, its sidelining could simply result from other huge releases later in 1997 dwarfing it. There could also, however, be something a little more personal at play – that for all its enjoyably lofty ambitions, broad horizons and glances towards prog-rock, ‘Grey Lantern’ is also a bit of a fascinating mess, a record that’s maybe more interesting to pick over than to applaud.
Perhaps the most instantly noticeable contribution to that confusion is the album’s stylistic restlessness, which saw Mansun attempt less to coalesce their influences than just to present them one by one, often within the space of a single song. Accordingly, the album’s opening John Barry theme pastiche on ‘The Chad Who Loved Me’ yields mid-way to ‘I Am The Walrus’-style vocal compression and then again to simmering orchestral mood music, before smudging into the vinyl scratches and synth washes of ‘Mansun’s Only Love Song’.
On the one hand, a palate broad enough to accommodate film soundtracks, psychedelia, hip-hop and electronica into the opening 11 minutes of an album is a tribute to Mansun’s rapacious musical appetite, and even more impressive in early 1997 than in today’s post-everything, internet-enable landscape. Listening now, though, it’s often hard to escape the feeling that ‘Attack Of The Grey Lantern’ is under attack from a barrage of kitchen sinks, perhaps the most extreme example arriving when ‘Taxloss’’s agreeably cheeky ‘Revolver’ quotations flip to throbbing acid house for its second half. The effect is undeniably engrossing, but the incongruity feels forced.