There was a time and place, in a galaxy not so very different from our own, that life on a planet called Pop looked rather dire. Then along came the Human League, with cool synth stylings that promised a smart and savvy future, a sound the people on Pop could really relish. Now this was not the Human League we’re shaking our booty to at ‘80s revival nights, but the Human League of “Being Boiled” and “Black Hit of Space”. A band of miscreant smarty-pants who understood that what we were all looking for was an art-school project we could dance to, the early Human League was it, briefly. When the band split, we got the not so smart pop of “Don’t You Want Me” and the agit-pop stylings of Heaven 17. Theirs was electronic soul music, a little twisted funk for some less-than-funky times, as “We Don’t Need This Fascist Groove Thing” amply demonstrated. At the time, perhaps it was pop too smart for its own good. Although, Penthouse and Pavement proved that they understood all too well the complicated relationship that existed between the pop and business worlds. Businessmen as entertainers, popstars as savvy corporate bureaucrats—resplendent in sharp suits, Heaven 17 literally wore the contradictions of the pop world on their sleeves. This was self-conscious and just-shy of serious pop music with a hook, a pop culture phenomenon that understood the twin virtues of danceability and social commentary. And for a moment it worked.
This was almost 20 years ago, and although we’re still in dire need of smart popstars, we’re certainly long past caring about Heaven 17. Their last albums barely matter and with Absolutely the Best Live it’s not entirely clear why their first live performance should have ever been recorded. Somebody spent time setting up the gigs, somebody spent time recording it, somebody spent time producing and mastering it and somebody spent some time packaging it. Sadly, nobody appeared to spend time talking them out of it, if only to save everybody else’s time.
The songs are what you expect performed a decade after they were recorded: tired and anemic, puffed up with some rhythm tracks and lame banter by Glenn Gregory. There’s a little hollering to rouse the crowd out of its stupour, but nobody’s really buying it. And, let’s face it, Heaven 17 were all about buying something (even if they were winking at us). Better turn that wink to blink, as in blink and hope you miss this.
Here, the canon is dusted off (“Let Me Go”, “Temptation”) and put alongside some new material. As a soul revival, it’s stale. As an experiment in studio-heavy synthpop going live in analogue (as ‘unplugged’ as they might possibly get), it’s about as offputting as you can imagine.
And while they might have imagined themselves poised for world domination at an earlier date, today it seems so misplaced. This is not a cynical marketing move (they were all about celebrating cynicism and irony at some level); rather this is just straight-up bad. Bad timing, bad music. Time to unplug this project for good.
// Notes from the Road
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