Vocalist Phil Oakey seems to be somewhat schizophrenic about Human League’s music. In a recent online chat he argued with a fan’s definition of it as “Kraftwerk meets Abba,” saying: “Abba were a pop band who did some weird stuff which they released as singles, whereas we’re a weird band — but our normal stuff was what we released as singles. But generally we’re avant-garde.” Yet only a few questions later he answered a query about whether the band ever considered signing with Mute Records (the home of Erasure and other dance-pop bands), “I honestly think we’re too pop for them. All their stuff is a little more art school than we are.” So there’s the Human League: Too avant-garde for Abba, too pop for Mute.
One of the most important “secrets” of pop songs is this: They mean everything and nothing. Your best pop songwriters know this, and know it means they don’t have to make up their minds between absurdity and meaning. Oakey surely knows it too; something about his baritone has often rendered even the League’s most absurd songs a certain deadpan charm that puts them over. On “Party” (from 1986’s Crash), for example, he sings “Everyone is going to Party, party” so straight that you couldn’t swear that he wasn’t recruiting people to the London Communists instead of the disco. And the fact is that it could be either.
Having made one of the three greatest albums of the ’80s techno-pop era with Dare in 1981 (The Thompson Twins and ABC made the other two), the League embarked on a five-year string of hits that stand as excellent singles, influential to this day. But after the underrated Crash gave them the hit “Human,” they went into a bit of a slump that lasted the ’90s. Singles like “Heart Like a Wheel” and “Tell Me When” were unimaginative and pedestrian, if catchy, and none were around long enough to leave much of an impression.
So I put this new CD in my player and push play. “All I Ever Wanted” opens with a synthetically distorted voice asking “What’cha gonna say and what’cha gonna do?” A bouncy, disco synth-bass kicks in, and then Oakey’s immediately recognizable voice pops up with “Too good/you could/be so misunderstood.” Human League is back, and it’s beautiful.
Secrets, an album that balances songs with brief computerized instrumental bits, will cause a faraway look to come to the eyes of any old romantic/wave synth-pop fan (god, I miss Naked Eyes). This album is a joy. It sounds like a revitalized League, still driven by Oakey’s songwriting (the most consistent element of their success) and singing, along with Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley’s backing vocals (the latter now called Susan Anne Gayle, which I think is her married name) and a new collaborator or two.
Some of the instrumentals serve as intros to the “proper songs,” “Nervous” preceding “Love Me Madly?” which starts with the line “You know you’re making me…” Others, like “Brute,” conjure up images of Oakey alone in a studio with a synthesizer and a drum machine, which is the kind of music that jumps right into my lap. “Madly?” also contains a couple of great League one-liners, the perfect “I don’t know if the world deserves us,” and a description of the song’s subject as “Like the woman out of Species.” And “Ran” sounds like a lament for futurism. Speaking of which, my god, do you realize that Oakey is 46, and that when discussing Dare, we can now say, “It was 20 years ago today…?” I need to change the subject before I get depressed.
Another great thing about pop albums, and another reason why Secrets is such a great name for one, is the way in which they can seem to be invitations to a private club. “The Snake” here makes this explicit. “Join us/Come and join us,” sing Catheral and Gayle/Sulley. According to an interview the latter recently gave to KindaMuzik, “The songs contain influences from the music that is hot now, although we used our old synths as basic equipment.” This suddenly strikes me as standing everything that Human League used to be on it’s head: Instead of using newfangled electronics to try to make old-fashioned pop, they’re using old-fashioned electronics to try to make new pop.
The pop is certainly what helped them across the sea in the first place. Oakey knew as far back as 1982 that synthesizers are just tools you use for building songs; the technology was and is important, but no more or less so than the materials they use for building houses. Houses can be made up of different things, but the end result is what matters. The League have always been about synthetically textured music refined into classic pop structure. The electronics are the clothes outside, but what they’re playing is the heart within.
They’ve passed the test; their worst is better than the others’ best.
Ark 21 Records: http://www.ark21.com/