I don’t remember much about Howard Jones in the ‘80s, except that my older sister really liked him. My older sister doesn’t really have the best taste in music. Upon reflection on Howard’s quite impressive musical career, consisting of genre-forming synth-pop, solo-piano and experimental albums, it seems he is someone to take seriously, even if he is predominantly unnoticed by contemporary mainstream audiences.
Along comes Ordinary Heroes, the most recent Howard Jones release in a long line of releases that have come from this incredibly prolific musician. The first time I put on my headphones and pressed “play” I wanted to throw my iPod out the window, run outside, find it and smash it against a wall, if only to secure never ever having to listen to this atrocious easy-listening adult contemporary “music” again. On the second (forced) listen, I managed to resist the urge, mainly because I didn’t want to lose all the rest of the music I have. The second time around was not any better, only slightly more tolerable. I began to wonder if my feelings about the album were simply reactionary. I am not a huge fan of ‘look-on-the-bright-side’ adult contemporary easy-listening, so perhaps my bias was having the better of me? Upon further reflection, it is very apparent that there are abundant missteps with this tired effort that goes beyond my personal preferences. Howard Jones abandoned the synthesizer years ago, and there can be no blaming an artist for wanting to expand or change direction of their signature style, especially if they consider themselves pigeon-holed. However, it seems he has traded in the synthesizer to make music that is so completely and utterly banal that it would go completely unnoticed as background music in an-old age home. Besides the obvious impersonations of Elvis Costello doing his best Michael McDonald, Jones’ uninspired and tepid Buddhist-infused lyricism delivers clichéd insight with a boring mid-tempo MOR songwriting approach. None of it is appealing, and none of it is very good.
It’s not that I’m opposed to positive messages in songwriting. There are a variety of ways to approach such subject matter. It’s definitely more difficult to deliver a positive song then a sad one, and unfortunately Jones does not succeed. Instead, what we experience is, in essence, a self-help book bogged down with insipid messages that provide no truly imaginative or insightful thoughts. It’s lazy songwriting that most definitely will only appeal to the gaggle of fans that have remained fans of his ever since his songs were played on the radio. These are the fans that will in all honesty believe every word when he feigns his best earnest singing: “Say it isn’t true / You gave up on your dream / Blinded by the spotlight / Falling through the screen / You’ve got to be strong / And you’ve got to fight on / You know you’ve got to be strong / And you’ve got to fight on / For everyone”.
It’s not that Jones’ lyrics are that massively horrendous. There are tiny bits of evidence that prove Jones can do better. He sings, “And it’s not like / I’m tongue-tied / Or words get in my way / but I love you”. That line, however, very quickly turns bad, and is immediately followed by the disastrous “Ordinary Heroes”, where Jones sings: “Ordinary heroes / There’s one on every street / You might not recognise them / ‘Cause they’re just like you and me / Ordinary heroes / You may not know their names / ‘Cause they don’t make the headlines / But they’re gonna save the day”. This is the kind of music you’d hear from a school-hired band during an assembly for teaching kids the importance of family values.
Ordinary Heroes may very well be expected (and welcome) fare from Jones, but it will definitely not win any new listeners, unless they are into grandpa adult contemporary. The 10 songs, from beginning to end, never increase the BPM (beats per minute) above 90. The album does occasionally pause for a nausea-inducing piano ballad where Jones sings about the preciousness of life, and how it needs to be treasured. It’s a shame, because the interesting instrumentation that Jones abandoned in the ‘90s could have livened up this borefest. The first two tracks are indiscernible. It actually takes some time to realize that Jones is singing a new song, because the instruments and melody lines are practically identical. Even without the synthesizers, all the instruments that could have made for a really interesting album (at least musically, if not lyrically) are there. There are plenty of choral vocals and well-intentioned string quartets wafting in and out, but their use is intended to go unnoticed, except perhaps in “Soon You’ll Go”, where the swelling of a male chorus near the song’s finale is quite a nice moment—perhaps the only one.
Jones fans may find this entry into his forgettable repertoire a nice inclusion, but not because of any nuances or innovative musical approaches. Listening to Ordinary Heroes is like listening to a music-ized version of a Katherine Heigl rom/com, only without the comedy. Actually, it’s a lot like listening to a music-ized Katherine Heigl rom/com. Ordinary Heroes remains uninteresting from beginning to end. It’s so inoffensive that it’s offensive.