No Safety in Old Glories
172 · 14 May 98
Gary Numan: Exile
Gary Numan and I got off to a very uneasy start. I discovered him in 1980, like most Americans whose only understanding of music came from mainstream FM radio (I was thirteen; obsessive obscurism began later), when "Cars" made its brief, novelty-fueled incursion into the bottom end of the Top Ten. I bought the album, The Pleasure Principle (in retrospect it seems incredible that my parents didn't veto it solely on the grounds of the suggestive title and Gary's heavy eye-shadow on the cover), having heard nothing else, which was very unusual for me at the time, and I think led directly to my adopting, for the next three or four years, a firm policy of buying no album I hadn't heard and liked at least three songs from (which will condemn you to a centrist life in this country, no matter how bizarre your tastes wish to be). The rest of the record is very muted and unapproachable, compared to "Cars", and I suspect many people had the same experience I did, as a result, which is probably all the explanation we need to elucidate Gary's prompt and decisive reversion to obscurity in the US, afterwards. I'm better equipped to deal with these expectation mismatches now, both to avoid them and to absorb them, but at the time The Pleasure Principle was the first one I'd experienced, and its betrayal hit me, and my then one-album-a-month-at-most record budget, like that glowing pyramid Gary is peering at on the cover dropped onto my head from a passing blimp. It is the last time in my life (and I think also the point where I first realized, as it was happening, that it was now inappropriate behavior for my age) that I cried out of petulance. The store I bought it from did not take returns, and if there were any used-record stores in Dallas in 1980, I didn't know about them, so it lingered in my closet, mockingly, until I eventually traded it to a gullible friend, or sold it in a garage sale, or maybe used it as one of the wheels of a mousetrap-driven car in some high-school physics contest.
Oddly, for me, I no longer recall exactly how Gary inveigled his way into a second chance. The only one of his albums I have on vinyl is Replicas, so it must have been something from that. I didn't start putting purchase-dates in my database until after college, when working at Lotus introduced me to better software, but Replicas is not on the dot-matrix printout I've preserved of my collection as of the spring of 1986 (count: 163), and is on the printout from three years later (count: 506) (not to be coy, current count: 3766, or 3526 if you exclude vinyl I've replaced with CDs). My best guess is that I heard "Down in the Park" on WFNX at some point, but I have a nagging sense memory of "You Are in My Vision", too, and it's also possible that "Are 'Friends' Electric?" came up somehow during my period of heavy Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? addiction. However it transpired, my database dutifully records the arrival of the two-CD best-of Exhibition in the fall of 1991, the two-on-one reissues of Tubeway Army/Dance and Telekon/I, Assassin two weeks apart the following summer, and then a steady trickle of Pleasure Principle/Warriors, Replicas/The Plan, New Anger and The Other Side Of over the course of the rest of the year.
And then a large gap. The lone bright spot of "A Child With the Ghost" excepted, The Other Side Of did little other than convince me that Numan's decision to develop an other side was sadly misguided. The third chance he owes to the internet. In 1992 I left Lotus to work on magazine publisher Ziff-Davis' next-generation (which turned out to be lost-generation) online service, where I got my first real internet account, and soon discovered the FTP discography treasure-troves. The sprawling track-lists of Gary's Japanese Asylum boxes made me very self-conscious about my rather pathetic two-on-one abridgments, and although I couldn't quite justify the import costs from Japan for albums I already sort of had, Beggars Banquet eventually redid their four UK album-pairs as double-CD sets, with essentially the same bonus tracks as Asylum, and I succumbed. My interest thus rekindled, I let 1994's new album, Sacrifice, try to win me back, and was more than a little surprised when it succeeded. I loved the subsequent live album, Dark Light, too, and so, fifteen years after "Airlane" and "Films" drove me to tears, I arrived at the belief that Gary was one of New Wave's greatest and most underappreciated visionaries. He was playing a Sunday early-evening show in London while I was there last November, but that afternoon was the Arsenal v Manchester United game my friend Marty and I had scalped tickets to, and combining football and Gary Numan in such quick sequence seemed at least imprudent.
And so it was with a stomach-churning mixture of fear and elation that I received the news, recently, that Gary was actually coming to America, and would be playing in a converted bowling alley a short distance from my house, a week ago last Sunday night. The elation was produced by a blinding revisionist flash, my long bout with revulsion and stray years of apology transmuted into two solid decades of staunch advocacy, all leading to this moment of ecstatic redemption, when the man himself would arrive to thank me for my steadfast devotion. The fear, correspondingly, came from the strong suspicions that my conversion was anomalous, that nobody but me would show up, and that Gary would find himself thanking me far more personally than either of us would probably prefer. I almost decided to skip the opening act and only show up a few minutes before Gary's own set, but in the end I was feeling outgoing that night, so I left my VCR to tape the second half of the Revolution - Clash game (I wondered, later, whether I was the sole intersection of the audiences for these two events), and wandered over. My heart sunk further when I got there to find an enormous crowd lined up in front of the place. As if it weren't insulting enough for one of the most influential figures in modern music to play to a handful of nostalgic thirty-something-year-olds, he'd have to squeeze through a throng of people there to see the Amazing Royal Crowns or the Dropkick Murphys or whatever, on the upstairs stage, just to get his equipment into the building. I walked past the line, running my glare of moral disapproval across the Amazing Royal Crowns or Dropkick Murphys or whatever fans like a crowbar over the slats of a picket fence. What did they know about the history of music? Where would their upstart heroes be twenty years from now? What did they think they were all expressing, with their ragged slacker clothes? Actually, they weren't wearing ragged slacker clothes. No matter. What did they think they were all expressing, with their black PVC pants, and their shiny combat boots, and their elbow-length fishnet gloves, and their unisex eye-shadow, and their inverted-cross necklaces, and their -- wait a minute.
Were it not hopelessly contrary to the prevailing aesthetic, I would have collapsed in a puddle of gratitude, right there on the sidewalk. All these people came to see Gary! They remembered! Who would have guessed? Even more fantastic, there were as many kids as there were Eighties holdovers like me, maybe more. As I stood in line, eavesdropping on the covey behind me, my grin of amazement widening as I listened, I realized that to these people, some of them probably not even born when Tubeway Army came out, Gary doesn't have to be a historical figure, he has become an adopted peer of Marilyn Manson and Trent Reznor. Where I hear his influence, his new fans hear a similarity, and it makes little difference what order things occurred in. Yes, deafening roars went up, later on, when he edged into "Metal" and "We Are Glass", but "A Question of Faith" and "Absolution" were greeted with just as much enthusiasm. Apparently I'm not the only one who's been buying his new records.
And it was the experience of being surrounded by a new generation of Numan fans that gave me the context I needed to make sense of Exile, Gary's 1997 album (just recently released here in the US), which had been hovering undecidedly between endorsement and ambivalence, for me, ever since I bought it during that same London trip. I'd been resisting it because it sounds so uncannily like Sacrifice, itself already a rather repetitive record, albeit one I liked. The scratchy, lurching drum loops, in particular, though if you take the time to plot them out on paper you'll find they aren't all literally the same one, require intent inspection to disambiguate, and if that's what you focus on, Sacrifice and Exile are liable to pass, taken together, for one seriously overlong extended mix of a single murk-enshrouded song. I was willing to bask in Sacrifice's atmosphere for as long as it lasted, but Exile just seemed redundant. With all this mannered vampiric pallor, jet-black hair-dye and clove-cigarette smoke swirling around me, though, it suddenly struck me that the crackly, textural rhythm strata and explosive comic-book guitar fury of these two albums is the extension into music of the neo-gothic spirit of Anne Rice and The Crow, which is in turn the serious (or mock-serious) undercurrent that makes the explicit facetiousness of Batman and Buffy the Vampire Slayer possible. Numan's drum loops serve the same function, and here the aesthetic parallel is about as literal as form-spanning analogies can be, as the shattered backgrounds of Dave McKean's cover illustrations for Neil Gaiman's Sandman/Death books. They are genre-identifying aural watermarks, which means first that you aren't supposed to mess with them, and second that you aren't supposed to dwell on them, either. They establish the tone; the rest of the music states this album's unique variation on it.
Presented with that key, the album unfolds for me with a satisfying click. The sinister keyboard hum and turbulent guitar chatter of "Dominion Day" is rock-star pantomime fodder as introverted as Foreigner's "Jukebox Hero" was extroverted. The distorted muttering in "Prophecy" is the collective voice of everybody who grew up never quite convinced that Obi-Wan wasn't deliberately mischaracterizing the far-more-intriguing Darth Vader. The low hisses and rumbles of "Dead Heaven" suggest that a clear night is even more beautiful than a clear day. Bells ring in the background of the plaintive "Dark", as if all the best things are announced by tolling. A borderline-subsonic throb permeates "Innocence Bleeding", like the inferno of Hell is also the heart of the living planet. Calm, drifting synthesizers and Gary's clipped narration defy the impatient percussion clatter of "The Angel Wars", as if all truths worth trusting are earned in moments of receptive, deathlike stillness, when you succeed in filtering out all the cacophony of waking life. The haunting, wraithlike flutter of "Absolution" could be the aura Clannad left behind in the barrows when they gathered up only the pleasant, comforting parts of Celtic mythology. "An Alien Cure", with its abrupt evaporation of the drum reverb and sinuous guitar hook, is the dark side Kate Bush's last two albums were careful to never fully reveal. And "Exile", the martial finale, is a marching song for the host of the underworld, pouring out to occupy the surface world, not with pitchforks and flicking tongues, as the legends pictured them, but with only a somber, methodical precision, like warders taking up their stations, securing a fragile, unprotected land against barbarians nobody else has spotted on the horizon yet.
Following the lyrics requires a similar recalibration of expectations. Gary's primary subject, in the old days, was the seam where human and mechanical impulses collide, but it's been a while since that constituted a frontier. Exclamations like "I Nearly Married a Human" have become hopelessly quaint; the humans and the machines have been married too long to even remember that the union was once controversial. Luddism, now, is having an answering machine that operates on micro-cassettes, instead of a digital one (or better yet voicemail), or stubbornly refusing to upgrade from Netscape 3 to 4 (or refusing to install the betas the week they go up). Fittingly, now that the sides of his old struggle have merged, Numan's new fascination, in greater detail still than on Sacrifice, is the tension between, and synonymy of, Good and Evil. This may make, if you still think of the two as opposite camps, for rather unsettling reading. "The body of Christ / Is as black as his soul", he says in "Prophecy". "Thought I saw rain, / Black and cold, / Falling on a child's grave. / Thought I saw an angel laugh and piss on it", runs a dream in "Dead Heaven". "Who said I'd save anyone?", God asks, in "Dark". Gary's detailed reply, in "The Angel Wars": "I'll drive a stake / Through the black of your heart (oh Lord), / I'll pull down your temples / And burn every word (Father), / I'll kill all the angels / That show me 'the light' (Jesus), / I'll drift into darkness / And tear out the soul of God", the parenthetical interjections at the ends of the couplets like a Southern trial attorney singling out the defendants, one by one, during his summation. For a moment it seems like the story is going to take a upbeat, if heretical, turn, as "Absolution" and "An Alien Cure" find the narrator working out the parameters of a new religion, taking over the position of God himself, having found it vacant, but even that wisp of post-apocalypse-rebuilding optimism gets thoroughly shredded in "Exile", as some vengeful force bigger than man, Heaven or Hell wrests him from his new throne, howling, over and over, "I'll make everyone pay". Of course, if your goal is to fit Gary into the same aesthetic system as horror movies and vampire chic, then this should all be understood as an elaborate artistic pose, not a literal critique, more like voguing in words, a calculated opposition done chiefly for dramatic effect, the same way you hold a flashlight under your chin to look spooky. The blasphemies exist to engender an adrenaline rush, a quick, spiky, rebel thrill. The thing is, though, I remember the early songs too well, and as easy as it was to write Gary off as a Devo-esque robot fetishist, back then, if you just read the titles, I never perceived an ounce of irony in his earnest stories of escaping from human flaws into the clean metal of machines. Nor, now, do I hear much macabre glamour in these dismissals of faith, judgment and salvation. They danced to it, the kids and the adults alike, and to be fair Gary and his tour band encouraged it, thrashing new blacklit violence into even the old, claustrophobic hymns, but despite the energetic bravado, I'm left believing that this was, at its core, deceptive, a necessary self-preservation. He shunts adulation into rock-star flamboyance because his real concern is how horribly our idols, how horribly idolatry itself, has betrayed us, and you can't explain that to a crowd of cheering people without being willing to kill yourself at the end.
Curve: Come Clean
As often happens, fitting Exile into my larger puzzle made some other things I'd been puzzling over clearer, as well. One was Come Clean, the new album by the reunited Curve, another band with the potential, either good or bad, to blend in with a genre that I suspect wouldn't exist if they hadn't helped create it some time ago. I had been concentrating on the fear that Curve would end up just repeating themselves, like they'd returned for an encore with nothing new left to play, and while these fears can be self-fulfilling, the more insidious problem is that they constrain your understanding to a single axis, and you miss all the orthogonal criteria completely. It doesn't matter whether Come Clean sounds like Cuckoo; this music is an art form in which restatement is routine. It is music for an eternal present, an endless rave, and it thus changes only like Atlas shifting his weight to correct the equilibrium of the Earth on his shoulders. Curve's songs are not stories or theses, they are combinations of ballet, martial arts and the greatest game of Asteroids ever played, attempts to make chaos weave itself into order, like finding the picture of the face of God in a meteor storm by playing a strobe light across it in just the right pattern. Melodies don't guide these arrangements, they result from them, less engineering than erosion. Toni Halliday's insistent singing, like the mantra-like lyrics, uses repetition to shake off logic, not emphasize it. If dance music and listening music are polar and incompatible, because dance is best when it's mindless, and listening when you're motionless, Curve slip between the two, and make music best suited for twitching. Dancing is more presentable, of course, but it requires an artificial equanimity; twitching is often, at least for me, a much more accurate and cathartic physical expression of my emotional state.
Having said that, though, I'll go on to admit that fifty-seven minutes is a little longer than even I like to twitch. The first few times I listened to this album, it began to try my patience around the halfway mark. I always distrust reviews which assert that the second half of an album is bad, though, since that's more likely to be a function of the listener than the record, so my initial theory was that I had about half an hour of tolerance for the mood it put me in, and it didn't much matter which half hour of the album I picked to share it with. But after programming the disc in reverse order, and finding that it started making me irritable almost instantly, I've concluded that that isn't true. "Chinese Burn", with its siren keening, recalls the ebullience of early EMF. The choruses of the slower, thicker "Coming Up Roses" rise out of the surrounding terrain like hallucinatory fractal mountains out of a rocky Martian desert. "Something Familiar" is practically a ballad by Curve's standards, the brutal, slamming "Dog Bone" its counterweight. "Alligators Getting Up" superimposes a gauzy, uncharacteristically delicate vocal over a rumbling beat that, without the singing and the Morricone guitar, could be the groundwork for a "Welcome to the Terrordome"-ish techno/hip-hop rant. "Dirty High", all noise-beats and buzz-saw whines, is industrial and abrasive. And the surging "Killer Baby" has a bloopy Jesus Jones élan to it, cut with radio-astronomy whistles and a bit of Siouxsie and the Banshees wail.
After that, though, things unravel with alarming rapidity, at least for me. The parts of "Sweetbaack" that aren't wearying dub remind me much too vividly of Garbage. "Forgotten Sanity" is plodding and garish, and I keep waiting for a tempo-change that never comes. The dry hi-hats on "Cotton Candy" sound offensively precious to me, the flanged, monotonal keyboard riffs are too close to deadpan techno for my tastes, and the vocal melody, maddeningly, sidles toward the brink of a glorious chorus repeatedly, only to back away every time. "Beyond Reach" I could take or leave, but the caterwauling of "Come Clean", despite an infectious drum track seemingly stolen from Blur's "Song 2", is genuinely painful. It's worth a little extra effort to program around the stretch I don't like, though, rather than just hitting Stop after track seven, because the final song, "Recovery", is the album's most charming throwback to the gale-force distortion of "Faît Accompli". Put together, in fact, the eight songs I like total thirty-five minutes, and I'm old enough to remember when that was an eminently acceptable album length. Making me unwrap a longer one to get at it seems slightly inconsiderate, but I'm willing.
Simple Minds: Néapolis
The other album Exile illuminates, for me, is Néapolis, the new one from Simple Minds. I have no idea what plans for US distribution the band has for this record, but I liked their last one, Good News From the Next World, well enough to spring for this UK limited edition in its hinged metal tin. I've grown attached to the tin, actually. In some alternate universe, where they could never quite perfect plastic, all CDs come in metal tins like this. What they make the CDs out of, if plastic didn't pan out, I'm not certain, but if I lived there I could cultivate the affectation of snapping a CD tin open and closed, like smokers flipping the covers of their eight-ball lighters back and forth, which was the only thing I ever thought was cool about smoking.
Ever since Simple Minds temporarily got stuck in the arena-anthem rut in the late Eighties, I've been expecting them to implode, but not only have they managed not to, for me, they've since contrived to stay out of ruts entirely. Good News From the Next World was a return to Sparkle in the Rain-era Big Music, but Néapolis, in an oblivious reversal of the usual "We just wanted to get back to basics" earnestness, plunges eagerly into a thicket of synthesizers, sequencers, drum machines, processor swirls, acoustic-guitar jangle and Jim Kerr's emotive crooning. The hissing drum loops ally the record with Gary Numan and Curve, but Kerr and Charlie Burchill (and returned bassist Derek Forbes, and even old drummer Mel Gaynor on one song) are not haunted by (or don't recruit) any of the demons that beset the others, and as a result this is an incongruously sunny record of twitching music. I expect it's too sunny for neo-goth audiences, insufferable in the way that people who leap out of bed ready to initiate pledge-drives and repaint guest bedrooms are to those whose idea of a productive start to a day is getting to the fifth cup of coffee before the mailman comes. If Numan's pinched snarl and Halliday's processor-flayed sighs are your idea of the genre's vocal ideals, Kerr's sweet, sincere, lilting melodies may seem as out of place as Pat Boone singing Motörhead songs, and if anonymous aggression and a drug-trip-enhancing blur are integral to this sort of music, to you, listening to Simple Minds gloss over them may be like watching your parents failing to wear jeans correctly. But the three albums complement each other, to me, Numan's providing weight, Curve's supplying buzz and Simple Minds' adding sparkle, and even if the three sides of the triangle don't appear to be the same length when you gauge them from your own vantage point, you always understand the music you like better if you know what it leaves out. And if eighteen-year-olds are the arbiters, I'm wearing my jeans wrong already.