Music can be a potent escape from the pressures and anxiety associated with the real world. But it can also be the exact opposite, acting as a mirror of society, reflecting its flaws. Gary Numan is doing the latter, confronting the dangerous, divisive times we live in and the long-term effects they might create. On his 21st studio album, Savage (Songs From a Broken World), the 59-year-old synth legend has created a post-apocalyptic world that has become barren as a result of global warming. “Savage imagines the planet as a desolate, desert wasteland,” he explains in the album’s press materials. “It’s about surviving and coexisting in a world decimated by global warming and my reaction to Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord.”
Initially, it may seem odd to think of the man behind the 1980 smash hit single “Cars” as a voice for progressive global change, but he’s been a vocal advocate of climate change issues of late, inspired by the Trump administration’s decisions as well as Al Gore’s recent documentary, An Inconvenient Sequel, which Numan described as both “scary” and “optimistic”. He’s also been a supporter of a variety of humanitarian causes, particularly concerning animal rights — a scan of his Twitter feed shows frequent retweets of PETA posts.
Rather than preach directly on the dangers of climate science denial, Numan — a natural storyteller — has instead decided to interpret these dangers as dystopian fiction. He’s certainly qualified to do so, as the rich sonic layers of his keyboard-heavy sound translate well to a futuristic landscape. Based on an unfinished novel that Numan’s been writing for about six years and produced by longtime Numan collaborator Abe Fenton, Savage is an unforgiving, full-on assault that kicks off with the ominous “Ghost Nation”, featuring programmed synths and sci-fi beats marching through a deserted landscape as a matter of survival. “We live in a windswept hell,” Numan sings, with a mixture of sadness and determination.
What’s pleasantly surprising about Savage is how layered and eclectic it can be. “Bed of Thorns” has an almost Middle-Eastern feel (as does the epic, almost hymnal “Broken”), with sparse electronic percussion complimenting the female vocalizing that runs through the track. Numan takes the song a step further, incorporating a loud, lively chorus as a contrast to the more sedate verses.
While a dark, foreboding pall is cast over the album, it’s not without its layers of light and shade. While tracks like “My Name Is Ruin” rumble like a beast propelled by a futuristic funk beat, a tender, almost lullaby-like melody lies underneath the layers of digital ruin in “The End of Things”. “Is that a voice calling me softly?” Numan sings. “Nothing in here is quite as it seems.” The atmosphere turns from gritty reality to dreamlike hallucination.
The synthesizers have a widescreen, larger-than-life menace that brings to mind younger artists obviously influenced by Numan — Trent Reznor is one of the more prominent examples — but there’s a sophisticated pop sensibility just beneath the surface. It’s worth noting — and Savage underscores this — that Numan’s songs have been covered and/or sampled by artists as diverse as Marilyn Manson, Afrika Bambaataa and Foo Fighters (the latter covering Numan’s classic pop gem “Down in the Park” in 1997).
Even in the dystopian nightmare of Savage, clear skies can occasionally be seen peeking out with traditional synthpop structures — though still beefed up with muscular keyboard riffs and sturdy beats. Despite its subject (and title), “When the World Comes Apart” could easily be a winning single, inspiring plenty of head-bobbing and perhaps even some minor dancefloor activity, particularly when those dreamy, upper-register Pleasure Principle-era melody lines slash through the beats.
“Save me from the world / Save me from your hell,” Numan sings in “What God Intended”. To be fair, Numan is cautiously optimistic about the fate of our planet — “I’m sure that somewhere there are people with a spine that will actually stand up,” he admitted in a recent Salon interview — but Savage is a compelling cautionary tale of what may happen if we’re too complacent to give a damn about future generations. It’s also a stunningly sharp and diverse collection of songs from a living legend.