Many supposed “one hit wonders” of the ‘80s and ‘90s, or any decade maybe, were actually musicians with a significant catalogue of music, with a story and personality beyond that one hit. Listening to band’s lone hit in the context of their entire discography can be revelatory. The UK band Modern English is a case where you don’t even have to go that far to understand where they were coming from. Their one big hit, as far as the general public is concerned, was on an album that wasn’t a charts-hunting departure but is fully representative of the band’s music. “I Melt With You”, the hit in question, came from the band’s second album, 1982’s After the Snow. Listen to that album and hear the darkness of their worldview, and more importantly the way they formed it into catchy, crashing pop-rock anthems of wit and cynicism.
The new Modern English album, Soundtrack, reunites the band with producer Hugh Jones, who produced After the Snow and 1984’s Ricochet Days. It may be surprising to hear, twenty-something years later, but Soundtrack is as strong as any of the band’s albums, as successful at channeling a specific perspective on the world into entertaining, surprising and visceral music.
The first track, “It’s OK”, is the catchiest, while also hinting of terror and addiction. “There’s a lot of tension / It’s almost everywhere,” sings Robbie Grey, the band’s singer, songwriter, and founding member. Soundtrack thrives off tension: the tension that exists between people in relationships, among strangers out in the world, and within songs. The music balances heavy mood with lighter melodies, while the lyrics are filled with accusations and vague but menacing declarations. There is a general sense of unease. “Blister”, a catchy pop song following the energy of the opening track, opens with a maniacal laugh and contains the mysterious observation, “you blister my paint”. In “Call Me”, unease is even thicker in the atmosphere. It’s a desperate, back-handed booty call: “If you need me / Take the knife out of my back.”
“Deep Sea Diver” takes finger-pointing in a different direction, using the literary device of metaphors and a songwriting device, repetition, to burn into our brain the message of destruction. “You’re a deep sea diver / Wreckage is your game,” Grey declares. Grey seems to be finding a hundred new ways to say cutting, bitter things. He uses images of terrorism (“Bomb”) and espionage (“The Lowdown”). He sets harsh words to the lightest of pop melodies (“Here Comes the Failure”).
Instead of just person-to-person wreckage, he often paints a broader picture, almost turning Soundtrack into a philosophical tract defining a dark worldview. In “The Lowdown”, to a slow-motion spy tune, he states that the only truth in life is “Nothing is easy / Nothing is true”. At six minutes, the title track, which creeps slowly, as if in a trip-hop daze, seems like a definitive statement that the world is always filled with darkness. “The black is calling / Never seems too far away,” he sings. It could be their theme song. Near the end of the song is a fierce guitar freakout, the musical equivalent of this reminder that pain and sadness are never far away.
The final song, “Fin”, ends Soundtrack on a different note. It at first seems like surrealism, the title referring to a fin growing from our protagonist’s back. Really, though, it’s a uniquely phrased statement on the way life never works out perfectly, and on how dreams never really come to fruition, how creators can’t ever fully control their creations. Once again, Grey is writing against false idealism, against the notion that all dreams can come true, and is doing so in his own unique way. “I want to speak like Richard Burton / And ride the crest of a wave,” he sings. He wants to “enjoy all today”… as if that would ever happen.