Sunday Morning: New Wave Of Emotion

Unlikely Great Britain spawning melodramatic-pop musicians Pulp, Rialto, Robbie Williams.

As a native of Britain, I am emotionally stunted.

I come from a nation of understatement and studied refinement, where painters paint watercolor landscapes, writers write about the Industrial Revolution, and Kinks frontman Ray Davies sings about Waterloo sunsets.

But it turns out that some pop music from this place known for the stiff upper lip is being overwhelmed by a wave of emotional, post-ironic melodrama -- the stuff of exaggerated emotions.

One day, when the weather was particularly overcast, I was reclining in the breakfast room with a cup of Earl Grey tea and treating my ears to the latest musical musings of dance-pop singer (and ex-member of Take That) Robbie Williams, whose new album I had recently purchased. There I was, innocently sitting on the sofa, reading poetry and expecting the stereo system to regale my mind with a little light background music.

Imagine my surprise to discover that this was no negligible tinkling. This was something I could not ignore.

In fact, I am no aristocrat, just a little English person doing my bit for the national stereotype. But my reaction to Williams' "I've Been Expecting You" was, nonetheless, one of deep shock.

What's going on with Robbie? He's dispensed with the perky pop and engaged in lush, orchestral ballads.

It's not just that Robbie's songs are dramatic. "Dramatic" is an entry in the Eurovision song contest in which the singer wears sequins on his/her dress. Epic tracks, such as Robbie's "Millennium," with a full brass section, solo-violin accompaniment and a healthy sense of irony, transcend the boundaries of the mere dramatic and become ... something more.

"So," I thought to myself, "this is what comes after postmodern irony. It's post-ironic melodrama."

But melodrama -- from England? The place with the reputation for keeping its chin up, for suffering in stoic silence? Verily. Williams is not the only one here with a soft spot for string arrangements.

Robbie's melodrama relies heavily on backing vocals to beef up such tracks as "No Regrets," one of the most over-the-top numbers on his current album. And it just so happens that one of the guest vocalists on this song is Neil Hannon, frontman of the Divine Comedy, the Irish orchestral-rock band.

When it comes to overstatement, Hannon is one of the greats; in fact, he has been doing the melodramatic thangsince the Divine Comedy's 1990 debut.

They're even guiltier of lounge-lizardry than the most-seasoned of English melodramatists. Consider their recent release, Fin de Siecle, with all its James Bond suavity and orchestral ornamentation, in tunes such as "Generation Sex" (RealAudio excerpt), "Sweden" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Life on Earth" (RealAudio excerpt).

Rialto are my favorite of this new wave of melodramatic bands, because the sextet takes it to the limit. There are the gorgeous lyrics ("More like a letter bomb blast than a valentine card, with love like Semtex") and the glossy, inlaid cover on its eponymous debut LP. Listening to it is like watching an art film.

Each Rialto song has a plot of its own, delicately slipped between the silk sheets of the melodies and caressed by plaintive, expressive violins. One expects their live shows would come complete with a flock of pure-white doves.

Although melodrama in music is closely linked to the sound of a full orchestra with its volume and depth, there has to be more to a song than a lush arrangement. For instance, The Verve are not melodramatic, despite the string section that decorates their hit "Bitter Sweet Symphony." Without those strings, their "symphony" is just plain bitter, methinks.

Sir Noel Coward, the acclaimed, 20th-century British playwright and composer, coined the phrase "only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun." He traded in a campy sort of romantic melodrama that may have been a precursor to the efforts of today's musical dramatists. At the heart of their brilliance is the sort of attention to lyrics that made Sir Noel famous.

In the realm of Brit-pop heroes, you'll find no character-driven story on an Oasis LP. But Pulp's album This is Hardcore gives us characters with "Seductive Barry" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Sylvia," themes ("face it ... you are young") and a narrator, invariably singer/guitarist Jarvis Cocker himself.

So melodrama isn't abstract. These theatrical musicians don't sing about "Magic Pie" and leave us to decipher what it means. They spin a tale, spell everything out for us, express feelings and make their point of view clear.

Perhaps it's only lazy people who like post-ironic melodrama -- people who can't be bothered to search for the meaning of a song. Or perhaps drama lovers are searching in vain for an idealized world of the past. Or maybe, just maybe, we English really are repressed. Maybe we can't express our own feelings, so we embrace the emotions of others -- and buy Pulp records by the truckload.