The Essentiality of Cardiacs’ ‘A Little Man and a House and the Whole World Window’
Yesterday came the very sad news that Cardiacs frontman Tim Smith passed away on Tuesday night (7/21), following a 12-year battle with a "complex and poorly understood" health condition. Cardiacs were a severely under-appreciated band, but to those who resonated with the band's eccentric music, they were everything. The word "genius" gets used a lot when many of his admirers speak about his music -- including by The Damned's Captain Sensible, Napalm Death's Shane Embury, and Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson -- and members of Faith No More/Mr. Bungle, Radiohead, Blur, and others consider Cardiacs a band who paved the way for their bands to help bring experimental rock to the mainstream. But even Tim's biggest fans admit Cardiacs will never be for everyone. "He was a true original, and like many other true originals he paid the price of being a cult artist, relatively under the radar for most of his career," Steven Wilson said on Wednesday in his tribute to Tim. "But for those that 'got' Cardiacs they almost without exception went on to become their favourite band."
After playing two gigs in 1976 with an unnamed band that Cardiacs' bio describes as sounding "a bit like the rocky instrumental bits" on David Bowie's The Man Who Sold the World -- and which included The Outsiders' Adrian Borland (who went on to front another severely underrated post-punk band, The Sound) -- Tim and his brother Jim formed Cardiacs as a raw, avant-punk band in 1977, initially known as Cardiac Arrest (and including Colvin Mayers, also later of The Sound). They officially assumed the name Cardiacs in 1981, underwent a handful of lineup changes -- always with Tim and Jim as constants -- and continued to expand their sound, which would become a fusion of punk, post-punk, progressive rock, circus music, medieval music, and baroque pop that at times also dabbled in jazz, ska, musical theater, film scores, math rock, and more. Their music teetered on the verge of whimsy but it was always too dark to be whimsical. It's an impossible-to-pin-down sound that some people described as "pronk," a portmanteau of "progressive" and "punk." Tim maintained that they were simply a "pop" band who played "psychedelia."
It would only take a cursory listen to Cardiacs to agree that they sound nothing like what most people would assume a "pop" band to sound like, but at the same time, as deeply weird as Cardiacs' music was, it was always accessible. Tim was never experimental just for the sake of being experimental; melody was always at the forefront of his songs. It was there in the horn and keyboard lines that would often take the lead as much as the vocals would, and it was there in Tim's genuinely great voice, which offered up a soaring, tuneful take on the classic British punk sneer. It's easy to draw parallels between Tim and Brian Wilson, another pop madman who was the primary songwriter, frontman and producer of his band, but unlike Brian, Tim wasn't just a studio wiz. He made sure Cardiacs made masterful, epic albums and put on live shows that were energetic, cathartic, and equally epic, as immortalized in the band's live film All That Glitters Is a Mares Nest, which was shot at a 1990 show with Napalm Death.
Cardiacs spent the early and mid 1980s honing their sound, and all their early work culminated in the release of 1988's A Little Man and a House and the Whole World Window, which Cardiacs consider their first "proper" album, following the "mini" and "demo" albums that preceded it. They say you get your whole life to write your debut album, and in Cardiacs' case that was definitely true; three of its songs -- including the closest thing the band ever had to a breakthrough single, "Is This the Life" -- appeared in more primitive forms on the band's earlier releases. All the time spent on obsessing over and reworking these songs paid off; A Little Man and a House is a masterpiece, one of the greatest art rock albums of all time, and a perfect place to start if you've yet to expose yourself to Cardiacs' charm. It's an album where each song flows directly into the next, making for a whole that's greater than the sum of its many, many, many parts. It utilizes recurring themes and lyrics and sounds throughout, and with more ideas stuffed into this one album than most bands come up with throughout entire careers, A Little Man and A House is a furiously bubbling concoction that constantly threatens to boil over but never does.
"Is This The Life" was not only the band's only modest hit but also the band's most radio-friendly song by a mile -- it's sort of a Cure-ish blend of new wave and post-punk and the only song on this album that remotely resembles the mainstream music of the era it was released into. If you need an easy entry point into Cardiacs' music, that song might be it, but if it caught your eye that this band is linked to oddballs like Mr. Bungle and Napalm Death and you want to jump right into the weird stuff, songs like "In A City Lining," "Dive," and "R.E.S." are some of the finest examples of Cardiacs' ability to fuse punk energy, pop smarts, and schizophrenic mania. It's songs like these that change mood, tempo, and key at the drop of a hat. They're full of oddly addictive melodies and spastic rhythms and they completely throw out the book on orthodox song structures. When you look at all the ingredients that make them up, they seem like they should sound like a mess. It's nearly a miracle that they sound like perfect pop songs.
Those fast-paced songs emerge as the immediate standouts, but the more brooding songs like "A Little Man and A House," "The Icing On the World," and "Victory Egg" sneak up on you eventually too. Cardiacs were just as good at atmospheric, slow-burning material as they were at heart-racing circus-punk, and those comparatively slower songs covered as much ground and went through as many unexpected changes as the fast ones. There's not a single moment on the album that isn't purely thrilling. It's full of complexity and intricate musicianship and all kinds of wacky, brainy ideas, but all of that is wrapped up in a concise, focused, 10-song pop album. A Little Man and A House succeeds for the same reasons that Pet Sounds and The Velvet Underground & Nico do; they're inventive, trailblazing, triumphant achievements in songwriting, and they're also genuinely fun to listen and re-listen to. Despite being so influential, no other band ever made an album that sounds like A Little Man and a House, and when you're craving its clash of prog and punk's opposing mentalities, nothing else scratches the same itch.
A Little Man and A House is about as close to perfect as albums get, and if you're looking to get into Cardiacs, I recommend starting here. But if it hits you, don't stop here. Its quickly-released 1989 followup On Land And In The Sea is cut from a very similar cloth, and Cardiacs later took their sound in new directions on their '90s albums, including their 1996 double album Sing to God, which is Tim Smith's most ambitious undertaking and considered by many to be his crowning achievement.
You can hear many of Cardiacs' studio albums -- as well as live material, bootlegs, side projects, and more -- at their label Alphabet Business Concern's Bandcamp. (And don't forget that on the first Friday of every month for the remainder of 2020, Bandcamp will waive their cut of sales and give profits directly to artists and labels.)
Stream A Little Man and A House and the Whole World Window here: