Music

The Human League: Hysteria [reissue]

Hunter Felt

Although disappointing at the time, the Human League's sequel to the genre-defining Dare has aged far more gracefully than its synth-pop peers.


The Human League

Hysteria [reissue]

Label: Caroline
US Release Date: 2005-09-06
UK Release Date: Available as import
Amazon affiliate
Amazon
iTunes

The Human League, although still regarded as an influential band, had the potential to be absolutely huge. Dare was a massive hit worldwide, a perfect synthesis of experimental electronics and sugary dance-pop. "Don't You Want Me", it could be argued, was the defining moment of the entire synth-pop scene, a piece of epic bombast that captures the spirit of the times while transcending it. The band followed this up with two classic singles, "(Keep Feeling) Fascination" and "Mirror Man", that moved the band even closer to the pop mainstream, whetting appetite for Dare's sequel. After a two-year gap, an eternity in the pop landscape of the '80s, Hysteria finally arrived, and despite some chart success, it effectively ended the Human League's existence as a dominant musical entity. Hysteria, in effect, has been forgotten about in the term's of the group's career, treated as sort of a rehashed, watered down Dare.

Caroline Records has now reissued Hysteria with additional bonus tracks, and the album, free of expectations, actually turns out to be something of a minor gem. This was the last release of the "classic" version of the Human League, their later albums would venture far off from the synth-pop course, and, if it's lacking in the vision and experimentalism of its predecessor, Hysteria makes up for it with a series of well-crafted new wave singles. Oddly enough, Oakey's growing concession to the pop world was probably what doomed Hysteria to minor league status. Dare's success lied with its ability to craft powerful pop songs that had a dark and bleak undercurrent. For every "Love Action", there were songs about "Darkness" and the assassination drama "Seconds". Hysteria only features one dark song, the guitar-driven "The Lebanon". This stark tale of life during wartime filled with huge drums and soaring guitars, when released as the debut single, alienated the Human League's core group of fans with its attempt to ape anthemic bands like U2 and the Alarm. Even if it did not go over well with the synth-pop crowd, perhaps because its highly politicized lyrics were so alien to the dance culture Human League appealed to, "The Lebanon" is a clear album highlight, a jolt of serious rock and roll in an album that occasionally dips into cheesiness.

And, yes, a listener can find plenty of head scratching moments of pure cheese on Hysteria, most notably the dance floor wannabe entitled, deep breath here, "Rock Me Again and Again and Again and Again and Again", where Phillip Oakey, laughingly, attempts to use his detached croon to carry a half-hearted stab of pointless Hi-NRG nonsense. The concluding "Don't You Know I Want You", which ought to have confused the heck out of dyslexics looking for the album that featured "Don't You Want Me", with its pseudo-African rhythms, is perhaps one of the most dreadful songs the League ever recorded, ends the album proper on a flat note. (The bonus tracks, as well, are fairly regrettable: an instrumental, a dull outtake, and three "extended versions" of Hysteria's hits that fail to convince me that the 12-inch single was a groundbreaking creative medium.)

However, the rest of the album features the band following the amazing pop smarts that informed "Mirror Man" and "(Keep Feeling) Fascination", none more so than the lost classic "The Sign". I feel that if "The Sign", rather than "The Lebanon", were the lead-off single from Hysteria, the album may have fared better. "The Sign" is pure sugar, it makes "(Keep Feeling) Fascination" sound like "Hurt", Philip Oakey had always made his intentions known that he wanted to prove that electronics were not just for experimentation but they could be used in the service of pop music. Nobody in 1986 needed to be told this, but the shimmering, good time, "everything will be fine" message of "The Sign" should have hammered home the message. It is, in fact, a perfection of the Human League pop formula, capitalizing on beautiful and alien sounds that could only be coaxed out of synthesizers, as well as the powerful tension between Oakey's deep alienated croaks and the female singers' naïve chirpiness.

Did I mention something about the Human League having a "pop formula"? Well, I am not kidding. Listening to Hysteria I was struck about how each of these songs seemed to be following similar patterns using specific tricks, but, on the other hand, I was noticing about how well it worked even when you noticed how formulaic the album was. Although the album took a long time to create, Hysteria seems effortless, as if the band could rattle of big hooks and catchy songs at a whim. There isn't much range on the album, it's filled mostly with call-and-response pop songs that rely on heavy concentration of choruses ("I'm Coming Back" and "So Hurt" being the best). There are two ballads, "Louise" and "Life on Your Own", which appear mainly because they felt they needed some ballads in the mix, where they sound a little like a rougher version of their Sheffield peers ABC. Overall, this is just a simple album, where the band sacrifices the complex arrangements and darker undertones of Dare in order to worship on the altar of Pop Muzik. For the Human League, the shiny, unvarnished, plastic noise of Hysteria represented an artistic step down, but the album still holds up as a beacon of synth-pop bubblegum.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image