Wednesday, March 17, 2010

ABC, Lexicon of Love (1982)

So recently I tried listening to the band's third album, How to Be a…Zillionaire! for the first time, and man…some people like to use words like "flimsy" and "disposable" as sort of all-purpose dismissals of eighties synthpop. I would argue that this is a foolish thing to do, as artists like Ultravox, Heaven 17, The Buggles, and Thomas Dolby all made pretty darned substantial music. However, "disposable" is the only word I can think of for Zillionaire. I wanted to hear it because it was the band's second-highest-rated album on allmusic, but the result was a major disappointment.

The reason I'd never listened to anything else the band did is because Lexicon of Love is such a definitive statement that it seemed as though the band's later, much-less-fêted albums would inevitably be letdowns. This appears to be the case. Everything else just seems…irrelevant.

Pretty much anything I can say about Lexicon is probably superfluous--I'm certainly not bucking any critical consensus here. But the album really is quite a thing. The marriage between the mixture of synthesized and orchestral instruments and the lyrics (that's right--it's a polygamous marriage) has rarely been done so well, and absolutely nothing on the album is not closely considered. More than ever before, it seems to me, the eighties was a time when producers used music as their own sonic playgrounds, and this is pretty much the summit of that tendency, even when it's not immediately apparent. Just listen--listen, I tell you!--to those ferocious arpeggios playing behind the verses of "Valentine's Day." Quite extraordinary.

The mood of the album is probably worth commenting on--overwhelmingly, it is one of sublimated emotional devastation, only occasionally erupting outwards. So on "Many Happy Returns," given the subdued chorus--"these are the lessons I could have learned/And these are the letters I should have burned"--it's all the more striking to hear Martin Fry spit out "I know what's good/But I know what trash is" (or, even better, "I know democracy/But I know what's fascist").

Often, however, strong emotion is only felt by its absence. I bow to no one in my appreciation of "Poison Arrow," and you had better believe that I will loudly sing along with the chorus, deploying my best falsetto for the "HAA-AH-EART!" bit. However, it's certainly not the album's most subtle song. BUT: the CD features, as a bonus track, something called "Theme from 'Mantrap.'" Wikipedia sez that "Mantrap" is a short spy film starring the band (sample sentence: "It is then up to Martin to battle his doppelganger and make the world safe for New Romantic Synth Pop"). The song is just a slower version of "Poison Arrow," but I think it even outdoes the original. It embodies the album's mood perfectly, and towards the end it features what may well be the album's best moment, as Fry intones "sticks and stones may break my bones but…words they almost killed me." I cannot imagine another context where that line would be so devastating, but in this perfectly unified, hermetic setting, they absolutely kill.


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