It’s tricky to know how to approach Life On The Road, the Ricky Gervais/David Brent album that accompanies the movie of the same name. A curio companion-piece for fans of the film is all well and good, but we’ve been presented with a record in its own right. Is it fair to ask that it stand separate to its movie mothership? Gervais certainly thinks so, as this is no thrown-together package. David Brent is backed by his band Foregone Conclusion, a collaboration between Gervais and Razorlight-drummer-turned-nice-guy-troubadour Andy Burrows, who has brought his own backing band to the party (including Steve Clarke and Stuart Baxter-Wilkinson, once-upon-a-time of pop-indie-punk crossover stars the Dum Dums, fact fans), featuring occasional spots by hip-hop comedian Doc Brown.
There’s clearly been a lot of work, and indeed a lot of love, put into the songs and recordings - the lyrics may veer into the ridiculous, but the music is approached legitimately. The record has a warm quality, intentionally middle of the road, but with buckets of instrumental charm. Musical nods to the Eagles, Wings and Coldplay are done with affection rather a sneer, and the playing never feels incidental - the songs have been taken very seriously, the harmonies are excellent, the parts warm and fluid. Gervais has a fine singing voice when he’s not hamming up the jokes, and melodically the songs are robust and extremely catchy. There’s even demos and alternative cuts thrown in at the end, adding to the sense that this is intended to be a real album. Gervais himself says these are not 'comedy' songs.
The problem is that he’s wrong. Life On the Road is absolutely and inescapably a comedy record, it just doesn’t always know it.
To understand the problem you have to understand David Brent as a character. Brent has no sense of self-awareness. Brent thinks he’s a terribly talented. Brent takes his art seriously. And Brent is almost, but not quite, unbearable. He’s almost, but not quite, obnoxious. He’s almost, but not quite untalented. Which makes Life On the Road almost, but not quite, a success. Ultimately why would you want to buy this guy’s album?
Brent might not think these are funny songs, but Ricky Gervais knows that they are. The album is littered with punchlines - mostly very good ones - that serve to emphasise Brent’s worst characteristics: his cringe-inducing need to be seen as a profound, modern-thinking artist when he’s actually reactionary and uncomfortable with the world, and his annoying tendency to follow lyrical ideas way past the point of good taste, such as ‘Paris Nights’ list of ways to transmit AIDS or pretty much all of ‘Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds’. These are comedy beats, and as comedy beats they work, they’re funny, but the jokes also undermine the music: We’re spending time with someone we don’t always like. Brent is ruining his own songs because he can’t help himself, and to an extent so is Gervais. Those jokes don’t slip past, he makes sure the punchlines pop out of the vocal. They’re emphasised, and each one takes us out of the song in order to laugh at the singer.
Gervais and Burrows have done their best to make this palatable, and the songs are all well put together. It works best when its comedy is at its most subtle - ‘Freelove Freeway’ revels in its retro naffness, ‘Slough’, an ode to Brent’s home town, is played with utter sincerity, and the closing ‘Electricity’ does such a good job at capturing Coldplay’s default anthemic earnestness that the inevitable appearance of Chris Martin feels totally natural. It’s so straight-faced that the line between Gervais and Brent effectively disappears. It’s almost (but not quite) too good. The more outright comedy is much less effective, with ‘Equality Street’ especially having basically no redeeming features. Brent is an arsehole here. This is an arsehole’s song.
Ultimately Life On the Road can only work as a comedy project, and musical comedy needs to be richer than this to be worth visiting more than once. You need to be Flight of the Conchords to pull that off, and David Brent just isn’t likeable or interesting enough.
5Marc Burrows's Score