[25 April 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Thirty-two years ago, the Human League released a record called The Dignity of Labour. While the title was probably more a reflection of the members’ socialist leanings, it makes a fitting motto for the band’s existence over the past three decades. They’ve run the gauntlet to which most long-running acts are subjected. The Greatest Hits tours and nostalgia package tours. Dwindling record sales. Selling their creative souls to “hot” producers. Getting dropped from major labels. Signing with smaller labels that go bankrupt and leaving them without promotion. The Human League have been through it all. But they’ve never stopped working, and they’ve earned a certain dignity in accepting their place and making the most of it.
This is all proof that perseverance, humility, and an old-fashioned work ethic can go a long way when you have some of the best, most definitive pop music of a decade at your back. When they recorded The Dignity of Labour, the Human League were a trio of high-minded computer geeks with little commercial aspiration and even less commercial success. But after booting founders Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware in 1980, singer Phil Oakey retooled the Human League as a classic-style synth-pop outfit. He recruited two attractive young women, Susan Sulley and Joanne Catherall, from a local club. A couple proper musicians were drafted, and the band recorded Dare, a near-perfect collection that still defines an era. Though technically the band’s third album, it’s a prime example of the debut-album-as-greatest-hits conundrum.
The Human League did some good work after Dare. “Mirror Man” and “Fascination” are essential ‘80s pop nuggets. But everything since then has been a matter of work and survival.
Credo is the first new Human League album since Secrets in 2001, and it’s the band’s ninth overall. They’ve released some mediocre-at-best albums before, such as the Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis-produced fiasco Crash in 1986 and the spotty 1990 comeback attempt Romantic?. But Credo is far and away their worst to date. An album whose music is as ugly as its title, it squanders most of the goodwill the band has earned from surviving long enough for their early music to come back in vogue.
Credo sounds like a just-okay Human League tribute act that forgot all the songs and tried to write new ones on the spot. Song titles and phrases are barked, cut up, and spit out repeatedly, as if the repetition can take the place of proper choruses or memorable melodies. Tracks go on for far too long. Some, such as “Never Let Me Go”, change tack midway through for no discernable reason. When actual lyrics appear, they’re almost uniformly bad. Oakey has always had a knack for making would-be hokey words sound like guilty pleasures with his unaffected, charismatic delivery. But there’s just no saving lines like “Never falter / Lead the pack / Forward, forward / Don’t look back”, or this one from “Night People”: “There is a place / The night people know / People know / The night people know / Night people / Night, night people”. It’s enough to make a second-tier Human League hit such as “Heart Like A Wheel” seem downright profound by comparison.
Not even the production gets it right. Oakey entrusted his demos to the British psychedelic trip-hop duo I Monster, an inspired choice in theory. But they’ve ended up sterilizing and watering down the analog synth-pop formula so that it sounds like Erasure without the campy fun. In other words, it sounds like about 75% of all the other pop music out there. One of Credo‘s small consolations is that Oakey, Sulley, and Catehrall are all in great voice. Somehow they’ve cheated the passage of time, and they sound just as fresh as they did 30 years ago. So why the need to intrude on them with all the Auto-Tune and other near-passé effects?
If you can manage to get to them, Credo does offer a few glimpses of what the Human League were once capable of. “Into the Night”, with its stark, Prince-like beat and edgy confidence, is one of the better late-period Human League songs. Why they didn’t concentrate on doing more of this stuff and less dancefloor trash like “Night People” is anyone’s guess. “Sky” is a pleasant, somewhat atmospheric story-song in the mode of “Louise”, though it doesn’t approach the latter track’s charm. “Privilege” is actually a nice homage to the pre-Dare Human League, that is until a computer starts to vomit out the titular word over and over again.
You get the impression Credo came this close to being pretty good then overshot the mark and crashed in a tangled mess. Yes, the Human League are still laboring on. But dignity? Fast running out.