We Are the Compass Rose is the first solo album from Paul Devine: undoubtedly best-known as the frontman and driving force behind 1980s Sheffield UK post-punk / early goth outfit Siiiii. The band formed when Devine was just 19, and were initially active from 1983-1986. Equally notable, then, is the fact that Devine’s solo debut comes forty years this year since he first formed Siiiii.
For English speakers, Siiiii would be more correctly pronounced “See” (not “Sigh”), taking their name from a passage in William S. Burroughs’ The Soft Machine, in which a Spanish-speaking man enjoys being rogered in a public toilet so much that he exclaims, “Siiiii!”. The band themselves, however, have always happily gone along with either pronunciation, thus becoming better known as “Sigh”.
In their heyday, Siiiii shared stages with The Psychedelic Furs, The Chameleons, and Artery; shared members with Pulp (guitarist and drummer Wayne Furniss); and appeared on compilations alongside The Birthday Party and Public Image Ltd. After first quitting the band in ’86, Devine also played with The Niceville Tampa (later simply Niceville), and in 1989 moved to South Wales, where he played for a few years with DVO.
Siiiii reformed again from 2005-2014, even playing as far afield as New York in 2006, having been “rediscovered” by global audiences, who first heard about them through the diligent efforts of goth / post-punk historian Mick Mercer. But during both incarnations of Siiiii, Devine struggled more than most with the pressures of public attention and performing live, later learning with professional help in 2019 that he was experiencing ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and Tourette’s Syndrome. More recently, Devine has instead been making a name for himself as an author, publishing four (count them) – four fucking novels since 2020.
We Are the Compass Rose is in many ways a far cry from the jagged and spiky post-punk of Siiiii, albeit peppered throughout with elements that will make perfect sense to fans of that era. Eclectic in nature, We Are the Compass Rose focuses more on the weird and wonderful aspects of dark and gloomy music, from pastoral Avant-folk, to spoken word set against minimalist sound collages, and indeed elements of those earlier post-punk roots. A sensible writer might recommend the best parts of this album to fans of early Bowie (c.1968-71), Current 93, Syd Barret-era Floyd, Coil, classic Bad Seeds or solo Mick Harvey, or The Legendary Pink Dots.
‘Come Unto Me’ is a sort of droning gothic plaintive chant set against sparse psychedelia; blurring the lines between sacred and secular ecstasies. ‘Hearse Song’ is an adaptation of a traditional song, also known as ‘The Worms Crawl In’, commencing with the cautionary line, “Don’t ever laugh as a hearse goes by”. Popular during the period of the First World War, fragments of the lyrics are found as far back as The Monk by Matthew Lewis from 1796, often hailed as the first gothic novel. Devine’s rendition is the rattling bones of an acoustic Bad Seeds outtake; a rickety horse-drawn undertaker’s carriage making a frenzied, spiralling descent into madness; the wooden wheels about to fly off at any moment, while layers of nefarious character voices assail the ears like a swarm of muttering, fluttering bats. ‘The Mill’ could be The Smiths at their most maudlin, and is among the most obvious and accessible conventional ‘song’ forms on display up to this point.
‘Seeing’, which contains the titular line “We are the Compass Rose”, is a striking highlight. Devine’s oratory style here is both masterful and hypnotic, a soothing rumble in one’s ear (albeit with suitably theatrical dynamic to remain engaging throughout), while the prose recited comes from the segue between books 1 and 2 of his most recent novel, Gerda’s Tower. The disquieting motifs of a muted, organ-like tone drift in and out of earshot, barely accompanied by a ride cymbal and incidental percussion. It may also serve, perhaps more by accident than by design, to remind some of us that we have been sleeping on Devine’s literary talent for a little too long.
‘One Skin for Another’ heads back into heavily Smiths-inspired territory, and feels perhaps a little superfluous in context, albeit fairly well done. ‘For the Love of Parkus Mann’ is a tender ballad, with a sense of uplifting and transcendence from sadness, which suddenly turns all spacey, awash with flanger effects and sweeping filters, a-la Donovan. ‘Jherome’ is closer to the angular post-punk of Siiiii, whereas the recording and production sounds more like a band of performing flies in a shoebox, recorded by a solitary contact mic.
‘Your Spell’ is a short but satisfying love song: very pretty acoustic guitar arpeggios and tender vocals, accompanied by washes of synth-strings. It ends leaving you hanging on wistfully for more, but that’s also what makes it so perfectly complete. ‘Lassie’ uses the old standard ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’ as its intro, blending seamlessly into a swampy-blues-meets-post-punk singalong-dirge, led by intertwining Howard & Harvey Birthday Party-style guitars and Fall-ish vocals. It suffers a little from some of the same recording and production issues common to most “band” (guitar, bass, and drums)-based songs on the album, but is otherwise quite enjoyable.
‘The Mermaid Song’ is another standout: a song describing an unknowable song. It calls you in to the idea of a mesmerising siren song that will lead you down into the deep, without you ever having actually heard that song, which ultimately led the protagonist to his own doom. Devine is in fine voice here, smooth and lulling, with intriguing acoustic guitars and lovely string arrangements behind him.
‘Every Day is One Day Closer to the Grave’ is both an obvious truism (which the album is littered with), and a better example of a “band” sound than any other on the album. The sound is bigger and fuller, while vocally, Devine shares some similarities here with the late Terry Hall. There is backing from at least one of many credited female backing vocalists, and the whole thing collapses into some kind of astral dispersion of its core elements, ultimately becoming stardust.
‘I Am What I Am’ is the old Broadway musical number: starting with atmospheric piano and intimate voice, before moving into a more vaudeville-meets-English music hall rendition. It quickly moves from there to a stupidly overblown cabaret showband arrangement, complete with elaborately nonsensical brass and strings, and works perfectly as a conclusion to the album, insomuch as the Sid Vicious rendition of ‘My Way’ serves as an entirely appropriate conclusion to the Sex Pistols.
All this from a man who would happily show you his arse and bollocks of a late evening, if only Facebook would allow it, while a long-suffering person named Linzi shakes their head in dismay. We Are the Compass Rose from Paul Devine is a very good album, from a very important artist. The album would probably be even better with less than a handful of songs omitted. Devine showcases here how diverse and eclectic his vocal talents are, ranging from droning choral gloom, to weird and wonderful character voices, through to brilliantly smooth lead baritones in a goth, new-wave, or post-punk style, and engagingly theatrical spoken-word oration. Finding his own voice in amongst all of this is occasionally a challenge, with some songs jumping back and forth stylistically between The Smiths and the Bad Seeds/Birthday Party. But the vast majority of the album, and certainly its strongest moments, don’t rely upon those tropes at all. Musically, conceptually, and creatively diverse, there is real art in what Devine is doing all these years since he first began with Siiiii, and one can only look forward to a second album with an identity entirely its own.
We Are The Compass Rose | Paul Devine (bandcamp.com)