I can still remember the first time I heard Book of Days. It was the fall of 1989, just after the album’s release. I put the cassette into the deck of my friend’s Volkswagen Rabbit and waited. The first song, “Shine”, came on and I thought the deck was eating the tape. The music was shapeless, muffled and slow. When it became clear that the tape deck was working fine, I was a bit shocked. What had happened to the Furs’ sense of fun, excitement and sharp melodies?
I had come to the Furs via 1987’s Midnight to Midnight, a sparkling yet slight dance-pop record that was a chart hit but that the band now derides. The excellent “All that Money Wants” single in 1988 and the career retrospective All of This and Nothing had left me with the impression that the band wanted to ditch the black leather and get back to its roots, but that still didn’t prepare me for the departure of Book of Days. In fact, the album was a perfect recipe for commercial suicide, something the band must have been aware of and not cared too much about. It was far too heavy in sound and theme for most of the teenyboppers like me who had loved Midnight, and most of the fans of the band’s earlier work — those for whom Book of Days was clearly intended — had already been turned off by the Furs’ progressively more commercial aspirations.
But I stuck with Book of Days, in part because I considered myself a “diehard” Furs fan, and in part because I had paid for the tape with my own money. And a strange yet not uncommon thing happened: The more I listened to it, the better it became. Out of the mucky mass of sound songs started to take shape — good ones, too. The dense, downcast atmosphere cast a spell. And 16 years later, Book of Days remains one of the Furs’ best albums, though it was almost universally dismissed and has languished out of print for the last decade.
Book of Days is not a band making a halfhearted attempt at capturing its earlier, harder, more dynamic sound. Rather it takes the most elemental parts of that sound — Richard Butler’s brooding, cigarette-infused croon; John Ashton’s incisive yet highly textured guitar work; Tim Butler’s propulsive, this-is-the-way-it-is bass playing — and builds them into a sonic mountain whose peaks are unhampered by keyboards, saxophones or any of the other production touches the Furs had previously employed. And it adds another crucial element: the primal thumping of original drummer Vince Ely, carrying on from “All That Money Wants” and making his first album with the band since 1982’s Forever Now.
Furthermore, the band’s choice of producer had as much an effect on Book of Days‘ sound as did their decision to bring back Ely. Dave Allen was in the midst of a highly successful run with the Cure, having recently finished work on Disintegration. But where the Cure colored in Allen’s dense soundscape with keyboards, violin or continuous guitar soloing, the Furs mostly just piled on the guitars and drums.
“Shine” announces the album’s intentions from the first. After a strange rattling sound, a simple Ely drum fill leads in to Ashton’s guitars, which sound like a single note stretching and reaching for air. Tim Butler anchors the simple, three-chord progression while keyboards (making their only notable appearance on the album) shimmer in the background. Yes, the overall sound is heavier and more primal than on any Furs album since 1981’s Talk Talk Talk, but this is slower and sadder. Lyrically, Butler’s pop culture-baiting rants and tongue-in-cheek horniness have given way to disillusion and somber reflection. “Look at me, I’m shamed / My bottle done”, he sings, perhaps alluding to his battle with alcohol abuse that nearly ruined the Midnight to Midnight tour. But the melancholic chorus is hopeful enough to keep things from doom-and-gloom tedium.
Several tracks do get the Furs back to their speaker-busting days. “Entertain Me” blisters with frustration (“Why the want for all that I can’t touch / And all that I can’t see?”) and Ashton’s ruthless guitars. During the middle-eight, you can actually hear Ashton setting his guitar on fire and smashing it, and it just doesn’t get any more rawk ‘n’ roll than that. “Should God Forget” combines one of the album’s most immediate melodies with Ely’s martial pounding; “Mother Son” does the same with only slightly diminished results.
In a complete reverse from the first couple of Furs albums, the slower songs have the most crushing impact. The title track begins with Ashton’s gorgeous arpeggio figure, which gives way to minor chords and near-industrial drums. “She’s 40 and afraid that there’s / A wasted life for every town that passes”, Butler sings of his displaced, disillusioned subject; and the atmosphere becomes both oppressive and affecting. The funereal “Parade” is anything but celebratory, while “Torch” is a beautiful, almost folksy reflection that lets some sunlight in and remains the Furs’ only all-acoustic number.
The real secret about Book of Days, though, is that it contains a true hidden gem, a Furs classic on par with “Pretty in Pink” or “Heaven”. Perversely in light of the contemporary dance movement that had just taken England by storm, it’s called “House”. It is, in fact, a moving anthem about broken families that starts with a signature Ashton guitar line peaking out of the darkness and surges into the album’s strongest melody. “Headlines in front pages / Sell weddings and divorces / Make promises pay”, sings Butler in a throwback to his sardonic heyday — his strongest lyric in ages.
That “House” is buried eight tracks into the album only underlines how much the Furs wanted to shun commercialism, and the plan worked. Where Midnight to Midnight had made Number 29 on the Billboard 200 album chart, Book of Days debuted at Number 138 and was gone a couple weeks later. “House” and “Should God Forget” were both college-radio hits, but the dismal commercial performance wasn’t nearly as surprising as the fact that the Furs’ label, Columbia, approved the album as a successor to Midnight.