The Story of Living Colour’s Wildly Ambitious ‘Time’s Up’
"All the rivers have died," wails vocalist Corey Glover at the start of Living Colour's landmark second album, Time's Up. "Moment by moment," he warns, "Day by day / The world's just slipping away." The song in question, the title track, mostly flies by at a breakneck, Bad Brains-inspired pace as the New York City quartet offers its take on jackhammer hardcore.
But when the rest of the band suddenly releases the clutch and goes into neutral, half-time gear, Glover's laments about ecological ruin take on an ominous, even desperate power as his soaring cry paints images of contaminated oceans, dying forests and humanity on the brink of no return from its own choices.
So begins a start-to-finish listening experience that still stands as a towering example of what a rock band is capable of when it stretches out and reaches for as many horizons as it can conceive. Living Colour's ability to blend the driving single-mindedness of hardcore with the anthemic, sing-along-and-pump-your-fist aspect of arena rock is but the first example of many here where the band demonstrate their ease in transitioning from one genre to another. Nowhere else in the Living Colour catalog is this quality on display quite as vibrantly as it is on Time's Up.
"I wanted to expand on the band's language," explains Vernon Reid on a phone call from the same Staten Island home he purchased with his initial earnings from the double-platinum sales of the band's debut Vivid. "But [drummer] Will Calhoun and [then-bassist] Muzz Skillings were developing as songwriters too, so they brought some really cool songs to the table as well. In that way, it felt very positive going into the making of that record."
Watch the Video for "Type"
At the same time, as the band set up camp at L.A.'s A&M studios (again with producer Ed Stasium and engineer Paul Hamingson), Reid was starting to pick up on the first signs of personal tension stemming from the drastic change in the band's fortunes. "Success changes people in subtle ways," he says without getting into specifics. "So I felt like it was really important for us to get back to work. Because suddenly, it was like, 'Wow' – we'd gone from being a club band to opening for the Rolling Stones, which kind of warped everything." (He later describes success as "a form of trauma.")
Even though Reid says the band had a more difficult time nailing takes this time -- "Making Vivid was smooth every day. Time's Up was smooth every other day," he says with a chuckle -- Time's Up nevertheless captures Living Colour firing on all cylinders as a musical unit. Sure, Vivid's country/hip-hop hybrid "Broken Hearts" betrayed the band's fusionist tendencies, but the varied textures on Time's Up suggest that Reid and company had progressed from a songwriting-based approach to a more painterly method of putting songs together. This is evident in the almost zany way the band allowed so much of the album to serve as blank canvases for a slew of musical guests.
Watch the Video for "Love Rears Its Ugly Head"
On "Under Cover of Darkness," for example, as Reid's dreamlike guitar glimmers like a sunset reflecting on the surface of the ocean, rapper Queen Latifah authoritatively sums up why women have so much to lose when they have casual, unprotected sex with men. On paper, the two elements would appear to clash -- not to mention that Glover sings the song as a lusty celebration of physical passion -- but the opposite happens and an inexplicable alchemy takes place. (Reid then drops a jazzy solo that grows increasingly warped, almost acid-tinged, as Latifah goes "ha ha ha!" in the background.)
Likewise, guest vocalist Derin Young adds a whole new dimension to the Ghanian highlife-inspired love song "Solace of You" as she meshes a counter-rhythmic Swahili harmony over Glover's chorus. Together, the two vocal lines -- along with Calhoun's interlocking layers of percussion -- combine for an effect that simply cannot be described in words. Of course, when the ultra-flamboyant early rock and roll icon Little Richard busts in to do a rap on "Elvis Is Dead," Richard's personality explodes like a confetti bomb in the middle of the song. But when James Brown saxophone giant Maceo Parker solos on the same song, it's clear that the band is having fun mashing these different elements together, and that no juxtaposition is off-limits.
Watch the Video for "Solace of You"
Lyrically speaking, the band was also expanding its reach. Where much of Vivid explicitly addressed race issues, Time's Up tackles race from a broader, more universal perspective. The music was still informed by the peculiar, difficult position the band had found itself in -- a rock group consisting entirely of black members wasn't supposed to be an issue and, in fact, could only be an issue in a culture that had collectively suppressed the music's black roots. But since it was an issue to so much of the outside world, it gave Living Colour's music a sense of agitated insularity that is both supported and complemented by the band's attempt to capture myriad facets of the human condition on Time's Up.
Certain songs ring with as much -- if not more -- truth today than they did in 1990. Reid wrote "Information Overload" at the early onset of the internet, when access entailed a dial-up connection and AOL membership. "I had no idea how prescient that song would end up being!" he laughs. Unfortunately, "Someone Like You" continues to resonate as case after case of police killings of unarmed citizens fill the headlines. In the end, though, the life-affirming tone of the album prevails. Time's Up ends with "This Is the Life," a tune that admonishes the audience to make the most of whatever you've got to work with, roll with the imperfections, and live life for all it's worth.
After Time's Up, Living Colour would participate in the historic inaugural edition of Lollapalooza alongside Jane's Addiction, Nine Inch Nails, Rollins Band, Ice-T, etc. The band would go in a more muscular, overtly metallic direction with its next album, 1993's Stain, and then abruptly break up in the studio while making what would have been its fourth album. Four songs from those sessions eventually surfaced in completed form on the 1995 compilation Pride, which also includes the floating-on-a-cloud "Soulpower" remix of the Time's Up staple "Love Rears Its Ugly Head." When the band set aside its differences and reunited in 2001, it's as if it had heeded its own advice from "This Is the Life."
If you see Living Colour live these days, the band come across as quite comfortable with their legacy, career trajectory and level of fame. Onstage, there's a palpable sense of enjoyment coupled with that unmistakable air of having nothing left to prove, even on the verge of releasing a new album. (Reid enthuses about Living Colour's recent outing as Aerosmith's opening act: "That was a good time.") One can only presume, however, that this sense of comfort wouldn't have come so easily were Reid and his bandmates not able to look back on what they accomplished on Time's Up -- arguably their defining achievement and certainly their most ambitious.
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