Dr Syntax, Edwyn Collins, Mark E. Smith and the Picturesque

Edwyn Collins is an exceptional person. Having faced the most extraordinary challenges to his mortality and significant physical damage in 2005 and beyond, he has resurged, put out several new works and even toured. I was completely thrilled to see him live in distant Sydney a couple of years ago.

His new work has been very positively received as it should be. However, the change in style and tone of his contemporary work from the work that preceded his dark year is acute. His post 2005 work is notably more inclined towards established musical elements that may regarded as accepted musical beauty. In a way these works are a natural follow up to his earliest solo albums ‘Hope and Despair’ and ‘Hellbent on Compromise’ and even Orange Juice. His new work is also more positive.

Things were not always this way. The mid to late nineties saw ‘Gorgeous George’ and ‘I’m Not Following You’ and then in 2002 we had ‘Dr Syntax’. ‘Gorgeous George’ was a big hit on the back of ‘A Girl like You’ but listen to the album, it is one dark, cynical, sarcastic beast of an album. “This music won’t take you higher unless you’re a moron” Edwyn sung along with many other drop dead put downs. Then came ‘I’m not Following You’ with its attack on Adidas Boys and Girls and ultimately its shooting of the sheep in the title track. Acerbic Edwyn. The album featured a collaboration with Mark E Smith and ‘acerbic’ made them bed fellows.

Then came Dr Syntax. 2002 and a masterpiece. You may not garner that from reviews and such. But it is. This is the sensational pinnacle of Edwyn’s caustic soul of the time. And it is called Dr Syntax and has an interesting picture on the front cover. So I ask, what is Dr Syntax and what is the picture?

In 1768, William Gilpin published an essay where he sought to describe and define ‘the picturesque’. Quote: “that kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture”. Gilpin is getting at the idea of a well-defined, pleasing art, a picturesque art.

William Combe (1742 – 1823) didn’t think much of Gilpin’s ideas and decided to take them down. Thus he published ‘The Three Tours of Doctor Syntax’. In Dr Syntax, Combe ruthlessly satirises Gilpin’s ideas. Combe clearly didn’t want much to do with established and formalised standards of beauty in art. He no doubt saw the essence of great art outside the limited boundaries of the picturesque.

So why did Edwyn Collins call his album ‘Dr Syntax’? Because he was at the height of his sarcastic power and he created his own Dr Syntax. The album satirises conventional beauty in music both lyrically and musically. The Edwyn Collins of 2002 goes to war with ‘the picturesque’ in music.

At this point we can return to Mark E Smith. The two artists saw eye to eye on the picturesque and it is little wonder they found time for one another around the time. I have long tried to pin down an element of Mark E Smith’s artistic vision that intrigues me. At times it appears that he is hell bent on removing any element of conventional beauty in music from his work. Is great art in music about beautiful singing? – no; is it about good production? – no; is it about lovely melodies? – no! no, no no! On the Post Nearly Man, the music largely disappeared. And just in case you start to institutionalise and beautify Mark’s own unique voice – that too can be removed. The mike can be handed over and it has been.

Mark’s work goes beyond Dr Syntax. He doesn’t satirise the picturesque in music, he attacks it openly. If any one finds a picturesque element in the Fall, he kills it. You like the singing in Bill is Dead? Gone! You like the melodies on the Unuterrable – gone. You like the music – gone! You start to love Mark’s voice? – gone. No picturesque here, the essence of the Fall, the essence of great art is not in the picturesque.

Back to Edwyn Collins, the interesting thing is that in his post 2005 works seems to have reembraced certain picturesque elements – traditional beauty in music ideas. He has pointed out that he wanted to get rid of negative ideas. And the cover of Dr Syntax? Lermontov a romantic poet – work it out 😉 Edwyn like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky may be rediscovering the value of tradition and positivity. But Dr Syntax I still my favourite.


2 thoughts on “Dr Syntax, Edwyn Collins, Mark E. Smith and the Picturesque

  1. Mervin

    Mate, your detailed observations cannot be contained. It’s a wonder that they must flow out via written media or forever lost as thoughts.

    Sleep well please!



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