Hayden Thorpe doesn't sound like most singers in rock bands. His "contentious" voice has been described as "disorienting," "eerie," "extravagant," "fruity," and liable to lead to "headaches and dizzy spells" - and those words are all from reviews favourable to his band Wild Beasts, whose latest album is on the short list for the prestigious Mercury Prize, to be handed out in London today.
Thorpe is a countertenor, which means he can pass somewhat smoothly into a range most men can reach only by vaulting into falsetto. So what's the big deal, you say: Haven't we been hearing falsetto voices in popular music for, like, ever?
Yes, but we've been hearing them in different ways, for they mean different things depending on their use and context. Prince sang almost all of his 1986 smash hit Kiss in a simpering, short-breathed falsetto, but nobody said (as yet another British critic has said of Thorpe) that he had been "beamed in from outer space." He sounded like a confident, randy man making a pitch for a woman, using his falsetto as a kind of brilliant male plumage.
Antony Hegarty hardly ever sings that high, yet his delicate upper range (heard on a Mercury Prize-winning record by Antony and the Johnsons in 2005, and on recordings with Lou Reed and Rufus Wainwright) came in for the same kind of extraterrestrial associations as Thorpe's. Like Thorpe, Antony doesn't need to pop into falsetto to get high: He can get there in his normal range. That's the first odd thing about very high male pop voices: The more normal they are, the weirder they seem.
The technical basis of the most normal-seeming rock singing - think of Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant - actually had to be invented, in the 1830s, by an opera singer named Gilbert Duprez. Before Duprez developed his pushed-up "chest voice" to reach high notes with maximum power, tenors sang with a light "head voice," like that used by Antony in Hope There's Someone, or by Fred Astaire in Dancing Cheek to Cheek (in the 1935 film Top Hat) .
Wayne Newton's effortless singing seemed freakishly high in hits like 1963's Danke Schoen, raising questions about the extent of this boyish singer's male development, while Tiny Tim embraced the freakish with his warbling falsetto and meticulous recreation of a singing style popular during the 1920s. Klaus Nomi, a real operatic countertenor who became an underground pop phenom in the eighties, really did try to seem as if he had beamed in from outer space, or at least he dressed the part.
But mostly, high male voices have threaded their way through popular music without benefit of UFO or white pancake makeup. Some have been frankly erotic (like Robert Plant and Prince and a host of R&B singers), or playfully menacing (like Thorpe in some moods); while others have evoked something benignly otherworldly, or angrily defiant. Here's a brief catalogue of how they sound and what they mean:
The Angel Art Garfunkel did this to a turn in Bridge Over Troubled Water, a quasi-religious song about a transcendence that seemed to occur as his voice climbed through the chorus. The pure-voiced Jonsi Birgisson takes the angel part in a number of Sigur Ros songs, if only because he's singing stately songs in a language almost no one can understand. Soul singer John Legend got angelic in Show Me, a literal prayer from his second album, though even when singing to Jesus, Legend can't quite get his head off the pillow. Sufjan Stevens is so angelic, he sometimes performs wearing wings, and Jeff Buckley might as well have. The locus classicus of the male angel is the high treble solo in Allegri's Renaissance masterpiece, Miserere Mei Deus.
The Anerotic Lover The Ink Spots' Bill Kenny nailed this one in songs such as If I Didn't Care, dialling down the eros to a level white radio listeners could tolerate from a black singer in 1939. Dick Powell made the anerotic lover a personal franchise in umpteen films in which he played the yearning "juvenile lead," and Coldplay's Chris Martin keeps the tradition alive in songs like Yellow, in which the adored one seems far too remote for anything sexual to happen. Sort of like Don Ottavio's arias in Don Giovanni.
The Haunted Angel Roy Orbison is the master here, somehow rising through memories of pain to a summit of devotion (in Crying, above all). But some old-timey singers belong here too, including Roscoe Holcomb, whose "high and lonesome" voice has a tough nasal edge. Great Lake Swimmers' Tony Dekker is a haunted angel, as is Chad VanGaalen, whose song Molten Light is a parable for the environmental destruction that haunts us all.
The Fallen Angel Antony gets high marks here, looking for grace (as Jean Genet did) through tales of degradation and rough sex. Morrissey, too, flaunts his high range while singing of the abasement of self and other, taunting Jesus with a casual tryst in Dear God, Please Help Me. Radiohead's Thom Yorke can work an angry sneer into his upper register ("when I am king, you will be first against the wall"), and Cee-Lo Green's jaunty new single is called Fuck You. Need we say more?
The Hero The conventional soaring rock tenor has this covered, though he's a few centuries too late for the real thing. Every great king and god of baroque opera was portrayed by the most unnatural high voices of all: castratos like Farinelli, whose glamour and celebrity rivalled that of any rock star today.