Sunday, 21 April 2019

The Lexicon of Love - ABC

Provenance: Not a clue. I had 'The Look of Love' on a compilation called Atomic 80s before I obtained this album; I think that it would've been a combination of hearing that and 'Poison Arrow' on Grand Theft Auto: Vice City that convinced me to lay my money down.

Incidentally, the radio station in the game that plays 'Poison Arrow' was called Wave 103, and a few years later I would end up writing advert copy for a station called Wave 105. Did it feel like being in a GTA game? Just a bloomin' bit!

Review: In the normal course of my reviews I fish out the CD, blow the dust off and await my auditory cortices to ping my consciousness a faint pulse of recognition. Not in this instance; Lexicon of Love is a staple part of my musical diet, one of the select few albums to make it onto my iPod. As such it's frequently in my headphones when I'm navigating the circuit of micro-humiliations otherwise known as going to the gym, or pumping out of my car's ridiculously overpowered sound system. It's a keeper.

Furthermore, earlier this week I saw ABC (well, Martin Fry 'n' friends) play the entirety of this album with the assistance of the South Bank Sinfonia. I guess that it's the only way to properly experience Lexicon of Love live - even the most sophisticated synthesisers would struggle to replicate this album's lush, widescreen approach to composition. Seeing original arranger Anne Dudley conducting the orchestra was merely the cherry on top.

Nonetheless, I'm going to play it through whilst typing, purely for the sheer enjoyment of it all. I don't have to; I know every horn flourish, every cluck of slapped bass, every lovelorn sigh. It's majestic, the pinnacle of New Romanticism; the Guardian review of a show on the same tour called Lexicon of Love Martin Fry's Citizen Kane, and it's hard to disagree. As interesting and ambitious as Beauty Stab or How to Be a...Zillionaire! are, it's Lexicon... that has ended up looming over ABC's discography, the yardstick by which everything else Fry produced would be measured against. It's no wonder that the latest ABC release is The Lexicon of Love II (a fine album).

The fact remains that the least of the tracks on Lexicon of Love would probably be the lead single off any other band's biggest seller. It's that good. Trevor Horn's trademark impeccable production means that every note shines with an iridescence; if you're familiar with either Frankie Goes To Hollywood's Welcome to the Pleasuredome or Yes' 90125 you'll know what I mean. If not, it's hard to explain in a pithy way exactly what it sounds like, but here goes; dry, chickenscratch guitar; prominent, rubbery mid-range bass; reverb-laden keys; and tightly wound percussion that eschewed the then-fashionable practice of noise-gating the snare (think Phil Collins' 'In the Air Tonight' for an example of noise-gated reverb on the snare). It all adds up to a glossy, zesty mix that both dates Lexicon of Love very definitely to the early 1980s and makes it explode out of a good set of speakers.

None of this would add up to much more than an airily pleasing confection if it wasn't for the songs. And what songs! I don't know who my readers are, but if you're not familiar with 'Show Me', 'Poison Arrow', 'All of My Heart' and 'The Look of Love', get onto Spotify or YouTube toot sweet. Better yet, just buy this album because it's brilliant and I want to see ABC play with an orchestra again. In an era - and subgenre - that welcomed cerebral lyrics within a pop framework, Fry combined clever wordplay with an almost inestimable depth of sincerity on the topic of love. Love, that most hackneyed of pop subjects, is the unifying theme of all ten of the tracks. As Paul McCartney acknowledged, it's tricky enough to write a single non-silly love song. Check this out:

A pirate station or the late night show
A sunken ship with a rich cargo
Buried treasure that the four winds blow
Wind and rain it only goes to
Show me, show me, show me that you're mine

Or this:

When 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
I'd be a millionaire
I'd be a Fred Astaire

The whole album is littered with these lovely little associative twists and turns which gather into impressionistic nuggets of imagery that always make me cock an eyebrow in appreciation, no matter how familiar I am with the song in question. Oh, and every song is shot through with irresistible hooks. Hooks on top of hooks. More hooks than Captain Hook's spare hook drawer.

The greatest performance on the album comes courtesy of frontman Martin Fry. In some ways it reminds me of Sandy Denny's work on Fairport Convention's Liege and Lief;  on that album, and often in the course of a single song, Denny's voice would swoop and soar, coo and caress. Fry does exactly the same thing, with an added dollop of melodrama. Even when it sounds like he's straining at the outer edges of emotion there's a catch, a sob in his voice that makes even the most over-the-top declaration of love's vices or virtues absolutely believable. Yet the sophistication with which this is all-delivered makes Fry sound tragic in only the most heroic sense, albeit a hero imbued with the lizard charm of Bryan Ferry. Fry never knowingly undersells a line, and that's part of the magic.

To sum up, The Lexicon of Love is not just a great album; it's possibly resident in my all time top ten, and considering the number of albums I own and have listened to down the years, that's no mean feat. I haven't even touched on the influence of cinema that is keenly sensed - just look at that album cover - but driving down the coast into a pink sunset with 'Poison Arrow' as the soundtrack certainly makes me feel like I've been transported momentarily onto the silver screen. Put that into the mix with Cole Porter, Roxy Music, David Bowie and Giorgio Moroder and you're somewhere in the ballpark of where this album ends up. Epic, panoramic, witty, debonair and unapologetically overblown, The Lexicon of Love is the stuff of dreams.

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