If it was a painting, you’d call it impressionistic.Ian Gillan about “Man Alive”. Retrieved from here.
An announcement was made through Deep Purple’s various social media channels recently about the release of a new song, Man Alive, on May 1st. Well, the day is here, and with it is a new lyric video.
This song actually first came over some radars on February 9th, when one of the interview clips between Bob Ezrin and Roger Glover that the band released featured just under thirty seconds of music, the first preview the general public got of the forthcoming album. At the time, it had yet to be named. I covered it here, beyond excited about what was yet to come.
As it turned out, I was very right to be excited.
Now that the song is actually out, it has exceeded my wildest expectations in every possible way. Truly, the band has outdone themselves this time. Without knowing most of the other songs, I can already tell that this album continues their winning streak.
First, as always, I must bring in technicalities. Overall, there are two repeating sections in this song, the musical portion and a storytelling portion slightly offset from the musical portion with sparser instrumentation and Ian Gillan’s words spoken rather than sung. This structure is the first of many unusual features of this song which make it stand out from the crowd of Purple’s canon.
The seems to be in E minor from what I can hear. When Ian Gillan begins to sing, there’s seems to be a key-change into A minor, though it could simply be the song has an extremely slow chordal structure and it’s simply gone from focusing on the tonic chord to focusing on the subdominant chord.
As is typical for the band, though, the actual key is played with a bit. The very first chord of the song sounds like a major E7 chord, for instance, something which definitely has no place in E minor. The quick dissonance created by Gillan’s voice coming in singing a “B – C – B – C” pattern, doubled over with a perfect fourth above, immediately unsettles listeners. Gillan quickly switches to doubling over with a perfect fifth above rather than a fourth, with it establishing the key much better. This early confusion works beautifully with the theme of this song and gives it a dark, moody quality.
The piece is in a steady 4:4 rhythm, with no syncopations and no deviations. The rhythm line stays mostly unaltered fromt the first hit of the bass drum ten seconds in to the fadeout five minutes and twenty seconds later. Ian Paice doesn’t try anything particularly inventive with the rhythm this time, but keeps his work packed with its typical punch. This is not to say that he isn’t altering his work, however; he uses drum flourishes and volume increases to build intensity within the piece when it’s needed.
Meanwhile, he’s not alone on the rhythm line, but rather is backed up by the sound of a ticking clock during some portions. During the storytelling sections, Paice drops out, leaving the clock on its own. Using effects like this is an unusual practice for Deep Purple, which makes it more noticeable that they’ve chosen to use one this time. It’s an interesting stylistic choice, and I hope to see how they adapt it for live shows.
Melodically, this is a richly-built piece, with many ideas put forward and played with. While Purple has always been a team of excellent songwriters, I cannot overstate how good they’ve gotten on each succeeding album as they’ve begun playing with structures and providing fuller developments of musical ideas. It seems like each time I listen to their most recent batch of albums, something different jumps out.
The driving riff of the song, if I had to pick one, would be the “E – B – D – E — E” played by what sounds like all three melodic instruments. Don Airey’s Hammond organ dominates the soundscape throughout the musical sections, driving the song forwards in between the riffs and generally filling out the areas between Steve Morse’s playing. After the hammond’s reduced profile during the last song we heard, “Throw My Bones”, it’s particularly welcome. As I noted in my review of the early preview, Airey also includes a collage of sounds which both showed up during Rapture of the Deep and routinely at the end of his solos onstage as he segues into “Perfect Strangers”.
Morse, meanwhile, is in fine form as ever, keeping his guitar sound quite crisp during this song. His solo during the second major musical section is finely done as he simply plays over the riff I articulated above. As usual, it’s soaring, but unlike his work in times past, there is no warmth or comfort in his sound. It’s simpler than he has sometimes done, with little arpeggiation or other frills. Overall, it’s an excellent solo. I think I liked the other recent one a bit better, but that’s just my taste, and I still really enjoyed this.
My favorite part of Morse’s work comes early and late in the song, as well as during the spoken-word sections. He uses a more ambient sound in long-held notes which adds to the atmosphere as Gillan speaks. Meanwhile, his chords, played softly during the opening sections, contribute even further to the menace.
The last major player, Ian Gillan, is in fine form during this song. His voice sounds excellent from the very first “oooooooooh” which begins the song. He plays off the wall of sound created by Morse, Airey, Paice and bassist Roger Glover (who, while I have few specific comments on, did excellently and provides a strong line for Morse and Airey to build on). While his delivery is a bit less bombastic this time around than on some of his other songs, this seems to be an artistic choice rather than an inability to muster energy.
Beyond the typical setup, there are sounds of a solo violin which opens and closes the piece, a string section and an oboe. Upon the first few listens, I was actively wondering about who the violinist who opened the piece was. Could it have been occasional Purple guest Lidia Baich? Could Steve Morse have picked up the instrument again? And who was the oboist?
Well, as it turns out, the oboe sound is actually keyboardist Don Airey, according to Gillan’s short interview on the song that has appeared on Billboard.com! Likely, this means the violins come from Airey as well. This wouldn’t be the first time he has stood in for an orchestra; he performed a similar role for his friend and bandmate Cozy Powell’s solo album Over the Top, during which he created a synthesized orchestral accompaniment to accompany Powell on the title track when the drummer had no budget for a real orchestra! I will say that the sound on the instruments this time is a bit closer to the real thing than it was for “Over the Top”, a testament to the march of technology in forty years’ time.
Already, fans are split on the introduction of a spoken-word section from the comments I’ve seen. This spoken-word storytelling section is certainly unusual for a Deep Purple song, but isn’t the first time there’s spoken word in these songs. “Anyone’s Daughter” from Fireball featured a few quick words from Ian Gillan (specifically “yes, I did. It was nice!” with regards to the judge’s daughter). Delving deeper into the band’s canon, back to the first lineup of the band, will divulge that “Listen, Learn, Read On” from The Book of Taliesyn also featured an alternating pattern of Rod Evans singing and speaking, much like this song.
Live performances, meanwhile, are a different story. For several years, the nightly performances of “Strange Kind of Woman” would feature a long, rambly story about the titular woman, usually told by Gillan to guitarist Steve Morse and involving intercontinental ballistic missiles, buttons, gowns, and canoes. Such a version is very resistant to embeds and can be found here. Obviously, this is a far more somber song than these silly stories, however! Personally, I quite like the words, yet another unusual element this song presents. Gillan has an elegant speaking voice as well as a singing voice which makes interviews with him pleasant to listen to. It also makes his casting as some sort of storyteller within the song even more sensible.
Every note from this song is crisp and beautiful, a testament to Bob Ezrin’s excellent production. Listening to the song quietly on one’s own as I have now done several times is to step into an ocean of sound as it washes through whatever sound system it may be on. The balance is fairly good as well, though Roger Glover is low in the mix during the more musically-heavy sections and hard to distinguish. Over all, I expect this will be an excellent third entry in the era of Ezrin’s partnership with Deep Purple; if there is a followup album to Whoosh!, I expect it shall once more be completed with Ezrin in the producer’s chair if the quality of this song is anything to go by. I have already listened to the song many times and have yet to get tired of listening. It just sounds good on the ears.
The story of this song is clear and stark set forth by a hard-hitting set of lyrics and a remarkable delivery as it follows an earth devoid of humanity. The entire population has been reduced to just one after some sort of unnamed disaster; while the piece was written before the COVID-19 pandemic began, there is no doubt that listeners will think of our present circumstances due to its release during its height. The song’s take is grim as it tells of humanity’s impending end.
The band has also picked up some of its environmentally-conscious writing once again as it tells this story. Purple has occasionally played with ominous views of our future and of mankind throughout their history, with songs such as “Fools” obliquely suggesting the stupidity of the human race that is once again touched on here. The last time their music was so laden with meaning about the natural world and humanity’s toll upon it would have been Rapture of the Deep, with songs like “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” suggesting we are killing our natural world. This time, the message is taken a bit further. As Gillan states, “nature loves a vacuum” and the planet heals quite quickly once people are removed from the mix. There is very little hope here that we can change, or get better, in the worldview put forth by “Man Alive”. Such existential themes make this song incredibly disturbing and thought-provoking in the end. This song might well be one of the richest in meaning as well as richest in tone.
There’s much less to say about the music video this time. While it’s still beautiful, it presents much less of a narrative. The spaceman is back, appearing to look at earth both in its pristine condition and then polluted by humanity, a simple tie-in to the dark message of the song. Some, but not all, of the words are shown over these images.
The one interesting narrative choice here, which is to show the starbaby from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which has been taken as a symbol of humanity’s next stage of evolution. Perhaps there is still hope for our species after all; maybe the band doesn’t see it, but the design team might be trying to!
I end this message with a direct address to the band, should any of them ever wander into this little corner of the internet: gentlemen, I don’t know how you keep doing it, but you’re still getting better at what you do. This song is an absolute masterpiece which I already love. Thank you for the wonder it’s already given me, and for all it shall give as my life continues on.
- Edit on 2020-05-13: added info on “Listen, Learn, Read On”.
- Edit on 2020-09-20: Optimized for new site.