I’ll be the first to say it: I’m a big, long-time fan of Neil Gaiman’s work. (Unpacking what I mean by that is a post for another day, or potentially my thesis.) Suffice to say I’ve been reading his blog for years, I grew up with his stories, and I connect with them on a deep and personal level.
So it’s really a mystery to me how I managed to totally, completely miss a tribute album called Where’s Neil When You Need Him? (2006, Dancing Ferret Discs). Made even weirder is that I like several of the artists who contributed, and I still never managed to hear of its existence until last week. I, of course, bought it right away and jumped with joy when it arrived.
The physical object itself is pretty: the booklet has illustration by Dave McKean, and inside you’ll find extensive liner notes by Neil himself about each song and his opinion of it. There are seventeen songs, each from a different contributor, including Tori Amos, Thea Gilmore, Rasputina (who have been discussed on Tor.com before), and Azam Ali.
I’m not a professional musician or a music critic, but I’m going to try my damndest to explain why this album is one of the best things I’ve listened to in a long time. Which is not to say I love each song equally—some stand out far above the rest for my ears and there's one I’m not hugely fond of but can still appreciate.
Gaiman’s children’s books inspired many of the songs: Coraline especially, but also The Wolves in the Walls and The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish. I had expected mostly Sandman (which contributes to several), but there’s also a nice showing for American Gods and Stardust.
The sound of the album balances between dreamily haunting, sinister, emotional and playful. Those might seem like contradictory adjectives, but really, they aren’t—there’s always an undertone of discomfort and of the macabre in a Gaiman story, no matter how upbeat it might appear on the surface. So too with the music devoted to the tales; perhaps my favorite of the songs is Thea Gilmore’s “Even Gods Do,” a beautiful American Gods theme that employs the richness of her voice to display a wealth of emotional intensity. It has a folkish ballad-sound that fits perfectly with its source material. (The lines “Bring the gods/line them up one by one/turn the coin/sound the fife and the drum/wreck it down/til kingdom comes back here,” in particular are so heart-stoppingly wondrous.)
For a very different but still fitting sound, the opening track is another favorite of mine: Rasputina’s “Coraline.” It has a raspy, deliciously sharp sound and playful but creepy tone that, to me, encapsulates the feeling of reading Coraline. “I say it’s a high price that you have to pay for going to explore the other side of the door…” The lyrics, too, lead the listener through highlights of the tale. I only wish it was longer—it clocks in at barely two and a half minutes.
As for songs I wasn’t as hugely fond of, because I’d like to be fair in reviewing it, “When Everyone Forgets” left me a bit cool. While it is an American Gods song, it doesn’t embody the book to me, or contain a feeling that matches the tale. (It’s also, as the liner notes call it, an indie-rock-electro-pop song… Well, let’s just say I’m not a big fan. Your mileage may vary.)
If I spent a paragraph on every song, you’d fall asleep before I finished blathering on, but suffice to say the rest of them are all double-thumbs up as well. The album is a smoothly flowing whole that never feels jumpy or stilted despite its many contributors and the different sounds they often employ. The connecting thread of Gaiman’s work and the tones that it demands seems to link the songs together perfectly.
And really, there’s nothing quite like listening to music about your favorite books. It’s getting to enjoy the story again from a strange auditory angle and also to see how musical artists interpreted and felt about those same tales. There are two songs in German that, despite my total inability to understand a word of them, still managed to make me relate to what they were “about.” (Especially “Vandemar.”)
I’d also mention that the CD is very cheap new from various wonderful online music retailers. Shipping and all, mine cost ten dollars, and for hours of enjoyment that will last me years and years. That Thea Gilmore song haunts me in my sleep, it’s so good.
(I’m curious: who else had already heard of this? Was it just me that managed to miss such a gem for so long?)