Martin Gore of Depeche Mode once famously said that if you call yourself a pop band, you can get away with murder, or something of the sort. He was referring to his cross-dressing and pseudo-masochistic lyrics, but the theory applies across the board. Change your name to a definite article, dress up like a leopard, drop a giant blow-up pig on the audiences at your live shows. In the end, though, you have to connect with the populace, give the people something they want to listen to and interact with. That’s why Depeche Mode, the Edge, Kiss, and Pink Floyd have established enduring pop legacies. Is it art? Maybe, but that’s not the issue when you’re singing along to “Rock and Roll All Nite” or “Wish You Were Here”. Pop without the populace is just pretension.
The Secret History certainly have pretense to spare. The Long Island, New York-based outfit is the long-awaited sequel to My Favorite, who broke up after their singer left in 2005. My Favorite, led by songwriter Michael Grace, Jr., inspired all kinds of talk about post-millennial romance, retro-futurism, and the like. But this overshadowed the fact their music was smart, competent, but hardly superlative indie-pop. Led by Grace Jr. and featuring all the remaining members of My Favorite plus a couple new singers, the Secret History is more a continuation than a fresh start, in terms of both philosophy and sound. In fact, parts of The World That Never Was were originally written for My Favorite. All of this should thrill the small but very dedicated following Grace, Jr. and My Favorite amassed over the last decade. It also means the same hang-ups are still there.
Brilliant in places, catchy at times, and too arch by half, The World That Never Was is the musical equivalent of the Chris Eigeman character in a Whit Stillman movie. It’s smug and smarmy to the point of near-embarrassment, but manages just enough charisma and pathos to keep you interested. So you have a lyric like “Life is hard, but death is harder / so I took up with an underage martyr” balanced by the irresistible jangle of “Johnny Nightmare”. Grace, Jr.’s theme for the album takes the lonely, alienated, misunderstood adolescents of a hundred Smiths songs and brings them into the 21st Century. Their naïve melancholia has given way to desolation and ugliness. They are monsters who, in Grace, Jr.’s words, “travel in hordes reciting the Lord’s Prayer in reverse”, with only their well-worn copies of Louder Than Bombs and 16 Lovers Lane for comfort, one presumes.
Yes, the Secret History are children of 1980s and ‘90s British indie-pop, and proudly so. The Smiths are the obvious touchstone, but you can also hear the more jagged arrangements of the Go-Betweens, the melodramatic energy of Placebo, and the girl-group touches of Saint Etienne, especially in Lisa Ronson’s humble, unadorned vocals. There are also contemporary compatriots. The gently rising-and-falling melody of “Love Theme”’s chorus is very Pernice Brothers. “Death Mods” is neo-glam lifted straight from mid-period Morrissey. The Secret History’s secret sonic formula, though, is incorporating some of the sass and toughness of their New York predecessors. This leads to some colorful Farfisa organ and some surprisingly rockin’ guitar, as on “Sister Rose”.
Where, you ask, do all these references leave the Secret History themselves? That’s the point and, to an extent, the problem. There’s a lot of concept here, in the carefully ornate arrangements and the lyrics that namecheck “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”, and in Grace, Jr.’s fiction workshop-type liner notes essay. There’s so much “art”, how could the pop stand a chance? Well, not even the weight of pretense can hold back a cracking, jubilant tune like “Johnny Anorak” or the chanted chorus of “God Save the Runaways”. Both My Favorite and the Secret History have been described as “lyrics-driven”. That’s a polite way of saying that the pop often fails to live up to its end of the bargain. The majority of these dozen songs are smart, competent, and, well, hardly superlative. Too many tracks go on one chorus or coda too many. Too many clever lyrics are left without melodies to match.
The World That Never Was ends up, then, like one of the characters in its songs. It wanders the halls of the British indie-pop class reunion alone, a pretty-good album that could have been great, a creature that can’t transcend all the bits and pieces it was assembled from. Maybe that’s part of the concept, too.