Sunday, January 25, 2009

Heaven 17, Naked as Advertised

I love Heaven 17. Let's face it: you'd kind of have to to be interested, in 2008, in a new album by such a quintessentially eighties band. But I do and I am.

The BRAND NEW! song is probably of most interest, so let's start there. In the chorus of "Don't Fall," Gregory urges the listener not to fall in love with him, clarifying that he is in fact unlovable. Nothing against Morrissey, but I'm not sure this is quite what Heaven 17 fans are looking for. Musically, however, it's a winner, all swirling, vaguely ominous synthesizers, somewhat reminiscent of the classic "Let Me Go." And what the hell, I'd happily listen to Glenn Gregory singing Ohio municipal tax codes, so on balance, it works. Also new: a cover of The Associates' "Party Fears Two." It's not a song I was previously familiar with, but it's a pretty good mournful, piano-oriented ballad, even if it doesn't seem particularly Heaven 17-ish. The line "the alcohol loves you while turning you blue" is particularly striking. Then we have "Being Boiled" and "Empire State Human," early Human League songs that Martyn Ware was apparently feeling proprietary about. Other than (predictably) Dare! and "The Lebanon," I've always been kind of lukewarm about the Human League, including these songs. For the record, I would place "Being Boiled" slightly above the original (some nice female backing lyrics) and "Empire State Human" a bit below. But neither of these are particularly strong opinions.

Then there are five familiar songs redone. "Geisha Boys and Temple Girls" (from whence the line "naked as advertised," of course) may be the best Heaven 17 song that doesn't appear on greatest hits collections. This version is louder and more direct, both lyrically and musically. It lacks the light touch of the original, which always seems to me to be recounting a series of fragile, momentary visions. I don't particularly care for it, although the female singing on the chorus is pretty okay. "Temptation" is mostly interchangeable with the original. I don't think I like it quite as much; some of the inflections in the chorus feel wrong to me ("unacceptable features" falls flat), but that's probably partially just a matter of familiarity. It's still a fantastic song; I'm just not sure why this version needs to exist.

"Penthouse and Pavement" is a strange case. The verses paint a jaundiced picture of yuppie upward mobility--but then, BAM, it hits that glorious, soul-inflected chorus, and you can suddenly hear the appeal. A nicely nuanced picture. For some reason, the remake flattens the chorus out; now it's fast and regimented like an assembly line, with no room for irrational exuberance. One almost suspects that the band thought it was painting TOO positive a picture. It's interesting to hear, and I'm glad to have it, but it feels to me like a serious rhetorical mistake.

I've always felt that "Fascist Groove Thang" was more of a flimsy novelty song than anything else; however, for what it is, the version here is actually a big improvement on the original, with much more solid-sounding production. The references to Reagan's election and Democrats being out of power make it willfully anachronistic in this day and age, but I think we can all be thankful that they didn't try to inflict upon it some sort of horrible lyrical update. Finally, "We Live so Fast" is similarly improved, although it's still not among my favorite of the band's songs.

So there you have it. I enjoy this album well enough (although it's never going to get as much airtime chez moi as the classics), but it would be a silly purchase for anyone insufficiently committed to already own their other seven albums. I'd start with The Luxury Gap (though their first three albums are all pretty much equally essential) and work backwards and forwards from there.


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