Dance music is often accused of seemingly prizing escapist content over substance. That’s a critique based upon faulty expectations. “Substance”, that very thorny, very rockist notion tied to overall determinations of worth, is honestly not often required in such music. Dance music, after all, has a very basic goal it must achieve, and anything beyond facilitating a good time on the dancefloor is an expendable bonus.
However, that doesn’t mean dance music has to sacrifice intelligence or wit, or lyricism more nuanced than the most primal exaltations. Martin Fry’s excellence as a wordsmith is a hefty reason why I enjoy his band ABC’s 1982 album The Lexicon of Love so much. Though it lacks the gargantuan and obtuse experiments typically associated with concept albums, The Lexicon of Love is most assuredly such a specimen, for every aspect of its being is employed in the service of Fry’s bitter deconstruction of modern romance.
Fry is no weepy-eyed coffee shop strummer. Instead, he and the rest of ABC cast themselves as gold lamé-suited Lotharios more informed by the glamor of golden age Hollywood than the dreary industrial reality of their Sheffield, England home. Indeed, the band’s conception for The Lexicon of Love was to treat it not as an album, but a feature film, with frontman Fry as the dashing name on the marquee. Fry cuts a striking presence throughout the album, tossing off bruised quips with deftness and panache. Who else would be so daring/daft as to base an entire song around the concept of likening his love life to grocery store expiration tags (“Date Stamp”), and pull it off without a hitch? On the opening number “Show Me”, Fry flits from metaphor to metaphor, likening a secret to the contents of an envelope, a pirate radio station, “the late-night show”, and sunken treasure in quick succession. Fry’s voice invests his words with a level of spectacle befitting the proceedings: he can belt it out so heartbreak is rendered as a triumph, and croon with the smoothness of his Rat Pack idols.
If Fry is the star of The Lexicon of Love, then producer Trevor Horn is its visionary director. Horn’s studio wizardry is the other major — and frankly, main — reason The Lexicon of Love maintains my affection. Horn virtually imprinted himself upon the aesthetic of the early 1980s New Pop. He did this by crafting a cutting edge sound (Horn enthusiastically embraced the latest in digital synthesizer equipment) so grand and luxuriant for The Lexicon of Love that every British pop star-in-waiting was soon scrambling to either sign him up or shamelessly rip him off. Though like many of their contemporaries the members of ABC had come up through the Year Zero reductionism of punk, they were not content with half-measures and lusted after the sort of production that would turn them into superstars. Horn, who had already tasted success as the leader of the Buggles of “Video Killed the Radio Star” fame, gamely stepped up to the challenge. The band’s battle-ready disco-funk grooves and Fry’s verbose ruminations are draped in sumptuous orchestration. Swelling strings, ringing chimes, warm brass, and a plethora of soulful backing vocals –it’s a backdrop that sounds like it cost a fortune.
The Lexicon of Love functions fantastically as a whole; put it on and you can dance your heartbreak away through the night. But it’s just as much a pop record as it is a dance one, which means that it boasts singles purpose-built with the intention of utterly conquering the charts and the airwaves. “Poison Arrow” is kind of what would happen if you told Elvis Costello to record a pop smash, and you gave him Sinatra records and Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall as a template to draw from. “If I were to say to you ‘Can you keep a secret’ / Would you know just what to do / Or where to keep it?” Fry pouts during the simmering verse. Fry then is augmented by a bevy of backing vocals during the surging pre-chorus, and finally crying out “Shoot that poison arrow into my heart!” in melismatic falsetto upon the realization of the chorus. The rumbling orchestration that introduces “All of My Heart” plays as the dramatic climax to an album that hasn’t even finished yet. “Tears Are Not Enough”, which predates ABC’s association with Horn, doubles down on the hard disco groove.
“The Look of Love”, the band’s American breakthrough and a stalwart of flashback ’80s playlists, is the album’s dizzying pinnacle. No expense is spared, no emotion held back as ABC and Horn concoct a three-and-a-half-minute Technicolor melodrama. For “The Look of Love”, an ordinary chorus is simply insufficient; instead, each chorus adds to the billowing gust of emotions that is stoked throughout the course of the song. By the final stretch, the music has built up to an immense scale, with Fry wringing every last drop of emotion he can out of it.
Whatever bright spots (“How to Be a Millionaire”, “When Smokey Sings”) that came later in the ABC discography, nothing could ever match the grandeur and the exquisite craftsmanship of The Lexicon of Love. It’s a milestone not just for ABC, but for much pop and dance music. For some artists, a memorable hook or a sweet groove are the ideals to strive for. In ABC’s case, they recorded an entire album that could be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.