A Failed Bid for Chart Success Revisited
The Human League, although still regarded as an influential band, had the potential to be absolutely huge. Dare was a massive hit worldwide, a perfect synthesis of experimental electronics and sugary dance-pop. “Don’t You Want Me”, it could be argued, was the defining moment of the entire synth-pop scene, a piece of epic bombast that captures the spirit of the times while transcending it. The band followed this up with two classic singles, “(Keep Feeling) Fascination” and “Mirror Man”, that moved the band even closer to the pop mainstream, whetting appetite for Dare‘s sequel. After a two-year gap, an eternity in the pop landscape of the ‘80s, Hysteria finally arrived, and despite some chart success, it effectively ended the Human League’s existence as a dominant musical entity. Hysteria, in effect, has been forgotten about in the term’s of the group’s career, treated as sort of a rehashed, watered down Dare.
Caroline Records has now reissued Hysteria with additional bonus tracks, and the album, free of expectations, actually turns out to be something of a minor gem. This was the last release of the “classic” version of the Human League, their later albums would venture far off from the synth-pop course, and, if it’s lacking in the vision and experimentalism of its predecessor, Hysteria makes up for it with a series of well-crafted new wave singles. Oddly enough, Oakey’s growing concession to the pop world was probably what doomed Hysteria to minor league status. Dare‘s success lied with its ability to craft powerful pop songs that had a dark and bleak undercurrent. For every “Love Action”, there were songs about “Darkness” and the assassination drama “Seconds”. Hysteria only features one dark song, the guitar-driven “The Lebanon”. This stark tale of life during wartime filled with huge drums and soaring guitars, when released as the debut single, alienated the Human League’s core group of fans with its attempt to ape anthemic bands like U2 and the Alarm. Even if it did not go over well with the synth-pop crowd, perhaps because its highly politicized lyrics were so alien to the dance culture Human League appealed to, “The Lebanon” is a clear album highlight, a jolt of serious rock and roll in an album that occasionally dips into cheesiness.
And, yes, a listener can find plenty of head scratching moments of pure cheese on Hysteria, most notably the dance floor wannabe entitled, deep breath here, “Rock Me Again and Again and Again and Again and Again”, where Phillip Oakey, laughingly, attempts to use his detached croon to carry a half-hearted stab of pointless Hi-NRG nonsense. The concluding “Don’t You Know I Want You”, which ought to have confused the heck out of dyslexics looking for the album that featured “Don’t You Want Me”, with its pseudo-African rhythms, is perhaps one of the most dreadful songs the League ever recorded, ends the album proper on a flat note. (The bonus tracks, as well, are fairly regrettable: an instrumental, a dull outtake, and three “extended versions” of Hysteria‘s hits that fail to convince me that the 12-inch single was a groundbreaking creative medium.)
However, the rest of the album features the band following the amazing pop smarts that informed “Mirror Man” and “(Keep Feeling) Fascination”, none more so than the lost classic “The Sign”. I feel that if “The Sign”, rather than “The Lebanon”, were the lead-off single from Hysteria, the album may have fared better. “The Sign” is pure sugar, it makes “(Keep Feeling) Fascination” sound like “Hurt”, Philip Oakey had always made his intentions known that he wanted to prove that electronics were not just for experimentation but they could be used in the service of pop music. Nobody in 1986 needed to be told this, but the shimmering, good time, “everything will be fine” message of “The Sign” should have hammered home the message. It is, in fact, a perfection of the Human League pop formula, capitalizing on beautiful and alien sounds that could only be coaxed out of synthesizers, as well as the powerful tension between Oakey’s deep alienated croaks and the female singers’ naïve chirpiness.
Did I mention something about the Human League having a “pop formula”? Well, I am not kidding. Listening to Hysteria I was struck about how each of these songs seemed to be following similar patterns using specific tricks, but, on the other hand, I was noticing about how well it worked even when you noticed how formulaic the album was. Although the album took a long time to create, Hysteria seems effortless, as if the band could rattle of big hooks and catchy songs at a whim. There isn’t much range on the album, it’s filled mostly with call-and-response pop songs that rely on heavy concentration of choruses (“I’m Coming Back” and “So Hurt” being the best). There are two ballads, “Louise” and “Life on Your Own”, which appear mainly because they felt they needed some ballads in the mix, where they sound a little like a rougher version of their Sheffield peers ABC. Overall, this is just a simple album, where the band sacrifices the complex arrangements and darker undertones of Dare in order to worship on the altar of Pop Muzik. For the Human League, the shiny, unvarnished, plastic noise of Hysteria represented an artistic step down, but the album still holds up as a beacon of synth-pop bubblegum.