Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Human League- Dare (1981): 73%

Just as Iggy Pop’s The Idiot (1977) has the unique distinction of being the album Ian Curtis of Joy Division listened to when he decided to end his life by hanging himself in 1981, the Human League’s most acclaimed work, Dare, has a distinction of being the last album rock critic Lester Bangs listened to before dying of an overdose of Darvon (a sort of tranquilizer), Valium, and Nyquil. People who make a living out of music usually tend to die by it as well, thus making music a religion in of itself, complete with martyrs and vehement disagreements about highly regarded ‘rock-deities.’

But as far as what Lester Bangs could have chosen to overdose to, he could have done a lot worse. Of course, maybe it would better of me to say that he shouldn’t have overdosed at all. However, I don’t have a time machine to stop him from getting fucked on pharmaceuticals and cough medicine. Nor do I have the ability to determine if Bangs listened to this album strictly for writing a review or pleasure. I tend to lean more toward the latter because this album was released about six months before Bangs’ fatal overdose, so if he was planning on writing a review for it, he would have been disappointingly late. But it does baffle me a bit when I think about how he preferred traditional rock n’ roll music, with Lou Reed being his favorite artist. So, consider this my review in honor of a fallen rock critic who passed 30 years ago, and an answer as to whether this would be a good album to die to.

Another aspect to the Human League’s career I found particularly interesting is that out of all their 9 studio releases, this album is the only one that was given above the 3-star average rating from Allmusic (this one got the classic 5-star rating). This says to me that the Human League is at least a consistently mediocre band who happened to perfect their formula for just one album. Curiously enough, their latest studio work, released last spring, still earned average reviews, but still carried their synthpop methodology. Which brings me to my next point: while Dare wasn’t exactly groundbreaking for 1981 (considering that was also the year David Byrne and Brian Eno released My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which was one of the earliest albums to feature sampling), their music definitely holds little to no relevance in the 2010’s. To prove my point, if you are not my parents, Bob Roets, or Jonathan Pulse, and you are reading this because you have a genuine interest in Human League (like David Bowie, Trent Reznor, or the members of the Human League themselves, for example), you deserve a five-spot from me. But if you are one of the many who don’t usually read my reviews anyway, and especially don’t know about the Human League, then viola! You are the vast majority.

You see, synthpop was a marvel back in the late 70’s and for most of the 80’s as well, but the only traces of it can still be found in some modern rap albums (Drake’s Take Care, and especially Kanye West’s 808’s & Heartbreak), and the occasional indie band that incorporates cheap Casio or Sony synth keyboards. If anything, I believe the Human League are employing the same equipment that Gary Numan used for 1979’s The Pleasure Principal (famous for his one hit wonder tune, “Cars”). In fact, the whole album sounds much more like a poppier version of The Pleasure Principal, almost to the point where my ears want to convince me that Dare is a plagiarized version of that album. However, for being a superficially unoriginal album for 1981, with experienced ears, you would find it does have the advantage of existing before most of the bands this album probably inspired. The opening track, “The Things That Dreams Are Made Of,” sounds like an early demo version of Depeche Mode’s “World in My Eyes,” a song that was released about a full decade after Dare. “The Sound of the Crowd” has a beat in the similar groove vein as “I Ran,” by A Flock of Seagulls, who wouldn’t make it big with that one-hit wonder until about a year later.

For all the pop sounds you would expect to find on this album, you wouldn’t expect it to get as dark as it does. Take, “Darkness,” for instance; not a profoundly original track title, but consider this lyric: “I hesitate but it's too late/I scream and scream again/I hear colours black and red/I see sounds that fill my head/I'll never read those books again/In darkness/Where my dreams are all too clear.” The following track, “Do or Die,” despite sounding upbeat, deals with a troublesome relationship where the singer feels compelled to, “Run all day, run all night/Do or die, do or die/Got to run for your life/Do or die, do or die.” It’s repeated often enough to make you realize that the Human League is more than just another forgettable synthpop experiment.

As the album closes on “Don’t You Want Me,” perhaps their best known song and one-hit wonder, as it fades out, some of the hairs on the back of my neck stand up to know that Lester Bangs was no longer living when the needle skipped on the last groove of the album. Just like how the ending to Iggy Pop’s “China Girl” hauntingly reminds me that Ian Curtis was undoubtedly dangling from the ceiling of his kitchen by the time the needle of his record player hit the final groove of side one of the record. It is rather unfair to be the creators of a fine album, only to have part or the whole scope of its legacy be overshadowed by the fact that someone prominent or obscure alike chose to listen to it when they died. It almost creates this stigma for the album, but admittedly, if I had mentioned nothing about it, you’d be none the wiser. Maybe even pumped to listen. But do me a favor though: go on Wikipedia and look up Iggy Pop’s The Idiot (and/or read Pitchfork Media’s paragraph about why it is one of the best albums of the 70’s) and then the article for this album. Notice how Ian Curtis’ death is synonymous with The Idiot, and how there’s almost no mention of Lester Bangs’ death tied to this album. In this album’s case, it’s probably better to be a one-album wonder than an album linked with foolish and unfortunate decisions.

Music: 7
Lyrics: 7
Length: 8
Meaning: 7
Significance: 8
Overall Impression: 7

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