[12 February 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
At its best and purest, pop music is about basic, visceral pleasures. The hook you can’t get out of your head. The simple chord combination that tickles your spine. The clever turn of phrase or the perfectly-placed cymbal crash. Such moments may take painstaking work to create, and reveal complex production and composition techniques when broken down. But with great pop music, the sweat stays below the surface and intellectual pursuit, though often rewarding, is optional. The phrase “ear candy” wasn’t coined for nothing.
Lots of folks who create pop music, though, struggle with this simple truth. Many of them are smart, intellectuals, even. Sometimes this sophistication of thought shows itself in the end result, as a natural occurrence. But sometimes pop artists try too hard to make sure they’re not just “ear candy” after all. These efforts unnecessarily make them appear pretentious.
In a feature for the webzine Dummy, Jack Cleverly, leader of the British pop band Cymbals, names the influences for The Age of Fracture, their second album. There is the English writer, John Berger. The American underground singer and comic artist Jeffery Lewis. German visual artists Anselm Kiefer and Friedrich Kunath. Brazilian artist Mira Schendel. American historian Daniel T. Rodgers, whose sociological screed gave The Age of Fracture its title. Reading the list, you begin to feel like you need an MFA to so much as listen to Cleverly’s music. But, then, at the end of the list, aha!, there it is. “‘80s synth and drum machine production”. Old Whitney Houston records. No need to overcompensate with obscurities and fine art, Jack. You could have just come right out with it.
The Age of Fracture is an enjoyable exercise in ‘80s-influenced, synth-heavy pop that goes right most of the time. Not to doubt the sincerity of Cleverly’s, erm, more refined influences. They’re surely there, probably in Cleverly’s lyrics, rendered with his arch, heavily-accented delivery and, on a couple songs, in French. But The Age of Fracture is a good album first and foremost because it’s a good pop album. There really doesn’t seem to be a lot beneath the surface here, but it’s a surface that is worth exploring.
The musical touchstones are fairly obvious. Sometimes they shade the songs, and sometimes they turn them into outright tributes. You can hear early Depeche Mode in the melancholy, cascading synths of “The Natural World”, while the piercing, menacing guitars of epic single “Like an Animal” recall any number of post-punk acts such as Bauhaus or the Chameleons. Standout “Empty Space” incorporates the funkiness and quirkiness of Tom Tom Club or New Musik. The production, by Oli Horton aka Dreamtrak, really nails the details and sound of the ‘80s. If there’s a connection to those early Houston hits, it’s in the punchy, clean electronic drums and tasteful synth embellishments.
Mostly, though, The Age of Fracture plays like a grab-bag of undiscovered b-sides from your favorite ‘80s and early-‘90s bands. Almost-title track “The Fracture of Age” provides an ethereal nod to ambient house music. “Erosion, with its thick lead bass and general sense of wonder, could be straight off a 1980s-ear Wire album. “This City” comes clean of the synths almost completely, instead offering an inviting take on the jangly, rain-drenched Postcard/C86 sound that practically invented British indie pop. “The 5%” and “Call Me” deal in gauzy dreampop.
Throughout, Cleverly sounds like a pleasant, less-intelligible version of Damon Albarn, but he also highlights The Age of Fracture‘s primary weakness. Cymbals and Dreamtrak have not just created a time-machine rehash. The songs themselves are too good and original for that. They take familiar elements and sounds and make something new, which all good pop music does. However, there’s very little to connect with emotionally. Who knows what these songs are about? When you can get a sense of what Cleverly is on to, well, it’s not much. “It’s the end of the night / You’ve been dancing too much / You’ve got to turn on the lights” he says on “The End”. He seems so detached from what he is singing that he often sounds ironic, spiteful, or both. That is a part of the ‘80s that didn’t need resurrecting.
So, ear candy it is for Cymbals and The Age of Fracture. Whitney trumps fine art, and that’s okay.