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Aug 17

Have You Heard… 24 Years Of Hunger?

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Charles Rivington uncovers a buried gem…

 The year 2011 marks a number of anniversaries. It’s 50 years since the Berlin Wall was erected, 100 years since Norwegian explorer Roald Amundson led the first expedition to reach the South Pole and 2500 years since the Battle of Marathon. One milestone that will pass by unobserved by most people is the 20th anniversary of British pop duo Eg & Alice’s first and only album, 24 Years of Hunger.

Put simply, 24 Years of Hunger is, without a doubt, one of the best albums of the 90s and arguably one of the greatest pop records ever produced. Unfortunately, it has also been criminally ignored.

Critics loved it on its release in 1991 and yet it failed to chart. It still occasionally pops up on critical lists and Q magazine even went as far as to name it one of their ‘best albums of the 20th century’ and yet it has been out of print for years. The gulf in critical and commercial success is as baffling as it is unjustified. The only reason I am lucky enough to be able to recommend it to you now is that I came across mention of it in one of these aforementioned lists in a Sunday newspaper supplement, thought it sounded interesting and managed to track down an inexpensive second-hand copy.

Little did I know then that several years later 24 Years of Hunger would have secured its place as one of my favourite albums of all time.

It’s fair to say that Eg White and Alice Temple were nothing if not an unlikely duo when their collaboration began in 1990.

Alice Temple

He had been a founding member of late 80’s boyband Brother Beyond, but had left just prior to the band’s brief period of commercial success, apparently due to the influence of pop music bogeyman Pete Waterman and his writing team. She had already found great success, both as a model and as the first female UK and European champion BMX biker, all while still in her teens.

He was the budding boybander who’d turned his back on fame and she was the tough yet beautiful tomboy who’d taken on one of the world’s most male-dominated sports and won. A pairing was hardly inevitable. And yet, it happened (perhaps it was fate) and by 1990, the two were spending weeks at a time in White’s flat making music and working on the album that was to be their masterpiece.

It’s hard to accurately pin down the style of 24 Years of Hunger. Some critics have compared the duo to Prince (or the artist formerly known as the artist formerly know as Prince or whatever he is going by these days) and his influence is clearly felt on the dreamlike ‘Mystery Man’ and especially on ‘I Wish’ which has more than a little in common with his ‘When Doves Cry’.  The duo was also clearly influenced by Steely Dan, Tears For Fears, Curtis Mayfield and Joni Mitchell (they share the latter’s remarkable talent for writing lyrics that are simple but also staggeringly heartfelt). Pigeonholing 24 Years of Hunger

Temple on the album's striking cover

would be doing it a disservice though and it is far greater than the sum of its influences, transcending the numerous genres (smooth jazz, soul, funk) in which it dabbles.

It’s often difficult to point to what makes a great work great as opposed to merely very good and Eg & Alice’s masterpiece is no exception. It comprises beautiful yet hummable music coupled with simple yet haunting lyrics that barely ever stray into pretension. This skilful balancing act alone is deeply impressive.

But all this and Alice Temple’s astonishingly, heartbreakingly, cynicism-meltingly beautiful voice? Then you have a masterpiece on your hands. Eg White also has a very accomplished voice (although I’ve always thought of him as a better writer than singer) but it is Temple’s that will sear itself onto your soul.

At the beginning of  ‘New Years Eve’, she sings the lyric: “‘Found myself crying on New Year’s Eve after a year of holding it in,” and it is this sense of ‘holding it in’ that makes her voice so fascinating and moving. In a world where the overblown wailing of Christina Aguilera or Mariah Carey passes for genuine emotion, Temple’s stunning delivery – emotionally-charged yet never melodramatic, on the verge of tears but never bawling- is an absolute revelation.

This quality is particularly evident on the deeply personal ‘Indian’, the album’s most famous track and one of its most compelling.

Eg White with his Novello in 2009

White sings back up, but he is there to support Temple and never once attempts to overpower her (this selflessness and musical symbiosis is evident throughout the album regardless of who is singing lead, a testament to the pair’s working relationship). This is Temple’s track and she sings every word with an unquestionable conviction; I don’t think it would be reading into it to suggest that ‘Indian’, in this case synonymous for outsider, might also be taken to mean ‘lesbian’. Her voice is never more beautiful, right from the first guttural yet barely audible ‘oh’ at the top of the track, through to the wonderful refrain which is both catchy and hummable but also emotionally resonant.

That is not to say that ‘Indian’ is the one great song on the album. In fact, it would be controversial to even call it the best song. 24 Years of Hunger is not the sort of album from which it is possible to pick one stand-out track because they are all, almost without exception, spellbinding.

Everyone who’s borrowed this album has had a different opinion. Some people favour  ‘Rockets’, with it’s slow build and invigorating chorus (‘send us a rocket or two’), while others like ‘In a Cold Way’ a disarmingly lively yet moving observation of depression – a sort of musical intervention. Some favour the soulful ‘It Doesn’t Mean That Much to Me’ with it’s uplifting gospel-inspired refrain of ‘Sorry God’. In fact, if you were to give this album to ten different people and ask them to name their favourite track, I think there is a good chance that you would get ten different answers (there are actually eleven tracks but it is unlikely that anyone would pick ‘IOU’, the album’s only misstep). The one thing that they will definitely agree on is that 24 Years of Hunger is a lost gem and that they are better off for having listened to it.

After the commercial failure of 24 Years, Eg & Alice went their separate ways. They both released solo albums (both of which are worth listening to but fall short of greatness). She had a well-publicised relationship with Rachel Williams and continues to work as a model.  He has finally found the success he deserves as an Ivor

Really people of 1991? Really?

Novello award-winning and Grammy-nominated songwriter, having written numerous hits including ‘Chasing Pavements’ for Adele, ‘Leave Right Now’ for Will Young and ‘Warwick Avenue’ for Duffy.

That 24 Years of Hunger is so unknown is an inexplicable travesty made more upsetting when you consider what was popular in 1991 (Salt-N-Peppa, ‘The Shoop Shoop Song’ and the world’s second worst Canadian, Bryan Adams). On the plus side, if it had been successful, we’d have had to deal with the prospect of ghastly X-Factor wannabes butchering Temple’s exquisite delivery with desperate runs and overblown warbling in an attempt to impress a panel of plastic has-beens and never-weres every Saturday night. That is simply too painful to think about. Perhaps there is some comfort in obscurity after all.

If you want to get hold of 24 Years of Hunger (and if you don’t, then I’ve clearly failed), second-hand copies are currently going for upwards of £25 on Amazon. Alternatively, you can also listen to the entire album for free on Grooveshark.

For more genius that you have yet to experience check out Have you Heard…’s sister series, Have you Seen…