Tuesday, 14 February 2012

The Lexicon of Love (1982) - ABC

Happy Valentine's Day!


So yes, it's 1982, post-punk is turning into New Pop and there are synthesisers and it turns out they can make awesome noises and every other bugger in Sheffield is giving them a go and as it turns out "every other bugger" includes ABC so here we are.


The first thing to note is how incredibly important The Lexicon of Love is - commercial & critical smash, true, but it was working on this album that Trevor Horn, Anne Dudley, that lot met for the first time, and thus The Art of Noise and Zang Tumb Tuum. From there it's little surprise that the production on Lexicon is absolutely lush - all those strings are actually Fairlight synthesisers, but you could drown in them nonetheless*: listen to the tremendous "All Of My Heart", for instance, and how every swell in Martin Fry's performance is backed by the music, and indeed throughout the album the emotional tenor is reinforced by the music terrifically (Horn was a perfectionist, we're told).


And what a performance Martin Fry gives: his voice is characterful and emotional but his lyrics are the main triumph, and what a triumph they are. Almost everywhere on Lexicon is covered in his turns of phrase, a wonderful wit and lyricism and poetry that it seems frankly unfair to concentrate so sharply; the bass and sax and drums fall perfectly into line with the structures, and the feel of the album as a whole is New Pop triumph, a perfectly crafted succession of fantastic musical moment after moment, an album almost entirely constructed of great lines that demand quotation.


We open with the quiet orchestral opening to "Show Me", building gradually up until it smacks straight into the rhythm section (the burbles of bass here particular reminder that Horn would go on to produce Frankie Goes to Hollywood), and the main delight here is the contrast between Martin's hushed vocals in the verses and the loud outbursts of "Show me! Show me!". The descending chimes that come under after chorus may be the most hackneyed progression of notes it's possible to have but it doesn't matter because of their euphoria; then the clattery middle eight, "Nine out of ten in every case/She might look pretty but there's make up on her face", and a special hat tip of the awesome moment where the shrill piping is interrupted by a big crass ugly perfectly timed mechanical pattern of descending notes. The song ends with Fry finally releasing the tension, yelling almost staccato "Where are the diamonds? Where are the pearls? Where are the things that you took from this world?" and then a sudden silence like the end of a magic trick, a pivot of void until almost (but not quite) immediately we swing into the groove, the start of "Poison Arrow".


"If I were to say to you, can you keep a secret? Would you know just what to do, or where to keep it?". The verses are subdued and arresting, the chorus massive and frankly unsubtle; the bass playing on "Poison Arrow" is superlative, as is the rhythm track in general, and the lyrics are really getting marvellous: "No rhythm in cymbals, no tempo in drums/Love on arrival, she comes when she comes/Right on the target but wide of the mark/What I thought was fire was only the spark". Superficially, written out, it looks pretty meaningless, but it's so redolent of the sadness that the album is about (happy Valentine's Day!), the confused groping for a relationship, and indeed that's the focal point of "Poison Arrow": between clashing thunderous percussion and vaguely oriental, spacious piano, the sudden speech:


[Martin] "I thought you loved me, but it seems you don't care."

[Girl] "I care enough to know that I can never love you!"


The best kind of melodrama. "Many Happy Returns"; "Like a phoenix coming back from the ashes/I know what's good but I know what trash is". One of The Lexicon of Love's triumphs is how something so, looked at from one angle, produced, constructed, crafted, feels so personal, and it's because all the production is centred around the experience of one M. Fry. It's almost like a conversation ("When she's here, one thing I've found/Things get better second time around") which only helps the emotional heft (Fry's falsetto in the closing part of the song, the doomy rush of descending notes that follow it, and then it's replaced by the same words but confident, strong...)


Naturally as soon as I laud how personal Lexicon is we launch into the most impersonal song on the album, the expertly dancefloor-tooled "Tears Are Not Enough": everything about its clatter, its loudness, its shuffle screams 'move'. As a result of its divergence from the subtlety we've had prior (?) I'm not a massive fan, but thankfully it's followed by the brilliant "Valentine's Day". Hopefully you weren't expecting cheerfulness because it doesn't deliver, given its opening line is "When the postman don't call on Valentine's Day", but even if there weren't words I don't think it would matter, given the luscious chimes that the song opens with and the dizzy, swirling, infectious 'strings' under the verses. And the song goes on and on and Martin gets angrier, more accusing, until it explodes: "Put your heart on parade, put your heart on parole/I hope you find a sucker to buy that mink stole/School for scandal, guess who's enrolled?/So ask me, I already know!" (masterful assonance), then the descent into confused voices and the sharpness of the music ramps up until Martin takes over again, alone, yelling, passionate: "And I'm shaking a hand, I'm clenching a fist/If you gave me a pound for the moments I missed/And I got dancing lessons for all the lips I should have kissed (fuck the metre)/I'd be a millionaire/I'd be a Fred Astaire!" and the music keels over, exhausted.


"The Look of Love, Pt. 1" was the big big single (recently used in an ad for Virgin Trains); it revels more in its own cleverness, and both in the brightness of its musical track and its lyrics it's more hopeful, less angry: it may still have the line "When your girl has left you out on the pavement" in it (and the genius of the female "Goodbye..." that follows it), but the sense of good-humoured camaraderie in the question-answer section ("What's that?", camp as hell) makes it an ultimately cheery song, mustn't grumble (help yourself to another piece of apple crumble) as pointed up by the magnificent spoken word section. (Worth taking this opportunity to point out how suave this album is: as much as the music keeps going off and doing random things and making a fabulous racket Martin is clearly always totally in control of the lyrics and his words and his speech even if he isn't in control of his love life. The cover's stylish as hell as well. I mean, wow.)


"Date Stamp" then, something of a low point to my mind actually - as nice as the woman's singing is, the central conceit of references to economics and money ("looking for the girl who meets supply with demand") seems to be trying to be a bit too clever and it ends up overextending its metaphor in a rather pedestrian way. Thankfully, however...


...we glide into "All Of My Heart", quite possibly the best song on the album. Here the production is even more luxurious, no moment not swathed in velvet, which only points up the simplicity of the opening couplet: "Once upon a time when we were friends/I gave you my heart, the story ends". Indeed the music under the verses is usually - if not simple at all, it's so densely packed and layered - quiet, which makes the moment it rises up under the chorus all the more important. "All Of My Heart" is one of those songs which reveals more of itself with ever listen: much as it has a verse-chorus structure it never truly seems to repeat itself, there's always some new flourish under each section ("the kindest cut's the cruellest part"), the lyrics are fantastic emotional genius ("Your lipstick and your lip gloss seals my fate..."), and the power and controlled fury in it only makes the false end, the a cappela "All of my heart...", all the more amazing... from there it's a slow, gracious comedown, and despite being over five minutes long "All Of My Heart" is gripping enough not to feel it; genius genius genius, and yet only peaked at #5. Christ.


"4 Ever 2 Gether" is another dance tooled one, its massive drums (there's a bit where they go uncannily Phil Collins about halfway through) even more reminder that Horn & co. were yearning to create "Relax". It contains the line "A mathematical equation/won't describe my liaison" and therefore can't be all bad, and its pacey propulsiveness and doomy yet playful atmosphere ("I stuck a marriage proposal in the waste disposal"; the almost taunting "I've got something on the agenda!") make it a good closer; the actual closer is a pretty instrumental reprise of "The Look of Love", and then we're out.


Witty, warm, emotion, expertly crafted; aside from a couple of forgiveable missteps, The Lexicon of Love is absolutely fantastic, because, despite the lush, extravagant, perfectionist production, it is ultimately An Audience with Martin Fry, and he is by turns wrong and lonely and angry and infatuated but throughout engaging, suave, witty, lyrical... a truly magnificent work of art. 3.8.



*the Radio 2 performance of the album in full backed by an actual orchestra is amaaaaazing



Old revoo:

While the orchestration at the start of "Show Me" may fool you temporarily, this is a typically 80s synthpop record, and brilliant with it. As well as the immensely catchy rhythms and keyboards, Martin Fry's lyrical wit is not to be underestimated, from "if you gave me a pound for all the moments I missed/and if I had dancing lessons for all the lips I should have kissed/I'd be a millionaire/I'd be a Fred Astaire" ("Valentine's Day") to "like the world spinning round on its axis/I know democracy and I know what's fascist" ("Many Happy Returns"). Pretty much all the songs are worthwhile, emotional, sharp and catchy. A triumph. 95%, actually. (Is that too much? Maybe 90%.)


Posted by Ann Apolis at 17:15