Regrets? Kevin Rowland has none. None about the last time we heard from him anyway, which is where you might reasonably expect to find them festering.
My Beauty, the Dexys Midnight Runners frontman's high-schmaltz covers album of 1999, gave no inkling that he might one day return triumphant with the powerful, playful, soulful midlife address of this year's One Day I'm Going to Soar.
"So what. I wore a f…ing dress," the 59-year-old Englishman says of the former album's bizarre and widely mocked cover photo, which depicted him in matronly pearls and make-up, soberly hoisting said garment to display his crotch above black silk stockings.
"It wasn't meant to be confrontational. Honestly. I liked it. That was it," he protests. "And now I don't even want to think about it. It was friggin' 13 years ago. That's where I was then. How people react to it (has) got f… all to do with me."
If the feisty response suggests a struck nerve, it's probably because My Beauty, for all its tragic reception, was so palpably heartfelt. Rowland's deadly serious, lyrically personalised covers of The Greatest Love of All and The Long and Winding Road were awful, like car accidents are awful. Oh, the humanity. Then again, the sound of a soul being scraped has been a constant in his work since his band's first yelping UK No. 1 of 1980, Geno, a dedication to his R&B inspiration, Geno Washington. The same intense, libidinous passion made Come On Eileen one of the defining tunes of 1982.
A full three decades later, One Day I'm Going to Soar, released under the abbreviated moniker Dexys, is a stunning return from the wilderness. Its songs are alive with vintage acoustic dignity and drama. Its clearly autobiographical song cycle about isolation and elusive romance finds the old well of concentrated emotion all the more potent for its maturity.
The first three songs, Now, Lost and Me, sketch a pitiless back story from dislocated childhood to the fleeting validation and deceptions of stardom. Later titles such as Incapable of Love and Nowhere Is Home downplay the bitter humour in Rowland's current outlook but there's zero irony in the closing monologue, which is a direct address to loveless misfits everywhere.
"I don't show much of myself in life but in my music, I tend to put it all in," he declares over the climbing piano of It's OK John Joe. "It's like I've got a need to get it all out of me."
What took him so long is a question he can't immediately answer as he jumps in a cab in East London bound for Kings Cross, where he's meeting his long-time foil, trombonist and co-writer Big Jim Paterson, to plot the band's first ever trip to Australia.
"I think a lot of it was fear on my part, to be honest with you," Rowland concedes at last. "Fear about making a s… record. About it not being good enough. About not being able to do it."
In the end, despite the sometimes acrimonious comings and goings of various Midnight Runners, the victory is as much about the tight gang ethos Rowland has always commanded. Stories about him leading group fitness kicks and their single-minded approach to sartorial themes are part of the band's curious legend.
Bassist Pete Williams and keyboard player Mick Talbot (the quieter half of the Style Council) are reinstated from the Geno era. New Zealand-born Madeleine Hyland has some of the most dramatically demanding singing parts on the album, which the reborn Dexys have been playing from start to finish across Europe.
"Our first shows in May got a standing ovation before we'd even played an old song," Rowland boasts, though he makes no bones about the albatross named Eileen making her inevitable subsequent appearance. "I'm grateful for the money I've earned from it," he says. "To be honest I don't focus on it. I'm kind of playing to the people who get what the band is about. I don't ignore that song but it's only a small part of what we do."
Nor does he ignore the demons that have contributed to his absence from the spotlight for the lion's share of his last 30 years. "Yeah, I'm a cocaine addict," he says curtly, "so I don't take cocaine any more. Haven't for years. I'm in a program of recovery."
Maybe that's what made the fourth Dexys album possible. And maybe that bodes well for a fifth sometime before another 27 years is up. But Rowland is making no promises. "I don't know," he says. "Everything had to be right. The stars needed to be aligned. I could try to put it into words but the honest answer is I don't know. If I did, I'd bottle it mate, know what I mean?"'I don't show much of myself in life but in my music, I tend to put it all in. It's like I've got a need to get it all out of me.' Kevin Rowland
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