A guilty pleasure, for those with shame. For the shameless, a pop classic.
Few periods in music are viewed with the contempt that is held for the early ‘80s. We witnessed the death of disco and punk. New wave suddenly meant A Flock of Seagulls instead of The Pretenders or Talking Heads. MOR (Olivia Newton-John, Sheena Easton, Kenny Rogers) ruled radio. Amid all of that chaos was 1982, which for ages was my favorite year for music. Some faves include Roxy Music’s Avalon, Duran Duran’s Rio, Billy Joel’s The Nylon Curtain, Simple Minds’ New Gold Dream, and even Rush’s Signals. I’m also a fan of Marshall Crenshaw’s debut, which came out in 1982, but I confess I discovered that one only recently.
The belle of the 1982 ball, though, was ABC’s The Lexicon of Love. It’s like disco done right, with one eye on the theater stage (the album cover states that rather obviously) and another on the dance floor. Trevor Horn made his name producing this record, creating a lush landscape that no one previously considered him capable of doing, based on his work with Yes and the Buggles. Sure, it was shamelessly over the top, but not in a gaudy way (unlike, say, Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Welcome to the Pleasuredome, also produced by Horn). It was a classic example of right place, right time for all concerned. ABC would go on to experiment with rock, house, and Motown with mixed results, to put it mildly. But The Lexicon of Love still holds its own, and is one of the best UK pop records of the ‘80s not made by the Smiths.
The quiet string intro to “Show Me” implies an album modeled more after the musical Annie than Chic, but then the thunderous rhythm section storms in and scarcely lets up. Martin Fry then takes center stage, with his tales of deceitful women and love lost: “When I need to feel you near me, you said, ‘Don’t have the time’.” “Poison Arrow” takes things a step further. “Who broke my heart? You did, you did,” the bridge taunts, but the kicker might be the break where Martin pleads, “I thought you loved me, but it seems you don’t care,” only to have the girl reply, “I care enough to know, I can never love you.”
Yes, the album’s title is more than a tad misleading. The Diary of Heartbreak may have been more accurate, but didn’t quite have the same ring to it. For all of Fry’s cries of wrongdoing, there’s nothing he wants more than love, love, love. Why the girl won’t give him any is clearly a mystery to him. “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,” he snaps on “Valentine’s Day.”
“All of My Heart” is the showstopper, a string drenched ballad with more emotion than anything Bryan Ferry had penned in ages. “Add and subtract, but as a matter of fact, now that you’re gone, I still want you back.” Fry lets his guard down for a moment to stop hurting the one he loves and flat out begs please baby please baby please baby baby baby please for it. And still doesn’t get any. How this song never showed up in a John Hughes movie is beyond me to this day, as it is still Lexicon‘s, and quite possibly ABC’s, finest moment.
The biggest squabbling point with Lexicon is the lyrics. For every well-placed crushing one-liner, there is another line that would make even Adam Ant blush. Take the line from “4 Ever 2 Gether”: “I stuck a marriage proposal in the waste disposal.” But perhaps the most glaring example is from the album’s biggest hit, “The Look of Love”: “When you judge a book by the cover, then you judge the look by the lover,” which makes no literal sense whatsoever. Even the puppets near him in the video started beating him up shortly after he sang that line.
In retrospect, The Lexicon of Love was an incredibly ballsy record to make. The worst thing imaginable in 1982 was anything even remotely close to disco, especially from a bunch of cheeky unknowns from Sheffield. But being British seemed to work in their favor. Instead of being viewed as disco, it was New Romantic synth pop, or something, which was the Next Big Thing at the time. But let’s be real here: it’s a disco record, and a damned good one at that. There are lots of bands I loved back then that I’m a little ashamed of now (Kajagoogoo’s “Too Shy”, for example), but I still stand by The Lexicon of Love as one of England’s finest.