Bryars: Jesus’ Blood never failed me yet

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Bryars
LABELS: Point Music
WORKS: Jesus’ Blood never failed me yet
PERFORMER: Unnamed Tramp with Orchestra & Tom Waits (vocals)
CATALOGUE NO: 438 823-2 DDD
Bryars wrote Jesus’ Blood never failed me yet in 1971. The singing of an old London tramp had been tape-looped, and an accompaniment of increasing harmonic and textural richness, yet essential simplicity, assembled very slowly around his incessantly repeated song. The result was compelling, due not least to the fine balance Bryars achieved between sentimentality and repetitive rigour. A few years later, Brian Eno’s Obscure record label included the work on its first issue. While some were incensed by so little happening so obviously for so long, I continued to treasure it.

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Now Jesus’ Blood has been reissued in a new version. Initially, it retains all the old impact, its frank but frail sentimentality still intact. But onto the end of the original 27-minute version Bryars has now added another 48 minutes. The new accompaniments – with more varied instrumentation and sometimes darker harmony – draw attention to themselves in ways the old version never did. Their ‘knowingness’ sits uncomfortably with the rough, affecting simplicity of the tramp’s voice; and the travesty is finished off by the addition of Tom Waits’s dreadful voice and appalling variations. Even an old minimalist like me can’t see that the new length is justified by anything more than the need to fill a CD. This attempt to convert a ‘classic’ of English experimental music into a commercial success leaves a very nasty taste. Keith Potter