Artists sometimes get it wrong. They don’t fully appreciate the quality of their art, for their own personal experiences during a piece’s creation causes them to look at their finished work in a much more critical light. Such is the case with the Durutti Column’s fourth album, without mercy. Vini Reilly is known for his often heavily critical view of his back catalogue, and this album is one he looks at with considerable disdain. His scorn arises from the fact that the album was created as an experiment in classical music at the behest of Factory Records’ mastermind, Tony Wilson. Wilson ––who always had grandiose and intellectual schemes in mind ––thought it would be an interesting idea if Reilly blended his music with an orchestral backing on a piece inspired by John Donne’s literary masterpiece, La Belle Dame Sans Merci.
Reilly, in whom Wilson had taken a great interest, did not feel like it would be appropriate to say no to his benefactor, so he agreed to the project. Utilizing both unreleased material and a handful of a previously released songs (some of which are offered here as a bonus tracks), Without Mercy was formed into two similar but different twenty-minute pieces. “Without Mercy I” is a symphonic suite offered in four individual segments that contain twelve stanzas in total. Considering how distinctive the band’s music in always been up to this point, it is startling to hear a Durutti Column composition that utilizes strings and woodwind Instruments instead of the distinctive electronic beat. While Reilly’s guitar playing is definitely distinctive, it is much more subdued in this context, making sure to be recognizable as a DC song yet offering something wholly new and different. One wonders, then, if “Without Mercy II” was a compromise with Wilson; presented as one straight piece, it is side one performed by the band sansclassical accompaniment. The composition is still enjoyable in this arrangement, if not a little meandering, but it lacks in comparison with the orchestral version.
Meanwhile, Reilly was quite busy working on new material and becoming a superb live attraction, as found on the bonus material offered here. Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say, a seven song mini album, appeared in early 1985 and served as a nice compendium to Without Mercy, with songs “A Little Mercy” and “E.E” proving to be some of his strongest compositions to date. Say What You Mean was such a strong record, it isn’t surprising that CD versions of Without Mercy would include it, resulting in a much fuller and satisfying release. This expanded reissue also includes two discs containing two live shows, one from 1984 and one from 1986; while the set lists cover the entirety of his career, it’s interesting to hear how the material from these two records grew and matured into beloved live numbers.
Even though Reilly may not have been satisfied with the results, Without Mercy is a very beautiful and interesting experiment, even if it isn’t one of their stronger releases. Reilly would soon start work on what would become some of his greatest material, and Tony Wilson would shortly scratch his classical music itch by launching an imprint of Factory devoted to modern classical music—a creatively innovative move but unfortunately one that only added to the label’s financial woes. With Without Mercy, Wilson at least saw his vision to fruition, back in the day when a label could afford to be innovative and interesting, a trait sadly lacking today…