Wouldn’t it be good if everyone knew how good Nik Kershaw really is?
Nik Kershaw is one of the most criminally unappreciated songwriters of the last 20 years. There are, as far as I can tell, two reasons for this: technology, and Howard Jones. Despite being a guitarist by trade, the songs on Kershaw’s first two albums, 1983’s Human Racing and 1984’s The Riddle, were smothered with the synthesizers and programming that were practically required by law in the ’80s. This, rather unfairly, lumped him as a kindred spirit to synth wiz Howard Jones, even though the two had very little in common. If anything, they were polar opposites, with Jones writing catchy but chirpy Up With People-ish campfire songs, whereas Kershaw’s songs were darker and surprisingly complex for pop music. The public made a VHS vs. Beta decision between the two and chose Jones, even though Kershaw, like Beta, is the superior product.
Actually, there is a third reason for Nik Kershaw’s anonymity: Nik Kershaw. He abandoned his solo career in 1990 to write for and produce other artists, as well as to spend more time with his kids. By the end of the ’90s, however, the urge to make another proper record took hold, the end result of which was 1999’s glorious 15 Minutes, by far the best album of his career. Gone was the bloated production and fat keyboards, and in their place stood simple, acoustic guitar-driven pop rock songs that are not far removed from Neil Finn’s more recent material. His latest, To Be Frank, is a much sunnier affair than its predecessor, and furthermore proves that 15 Minutes was no fluke.
The leadoff track, “Wounded”, is easily the loosest, most upbeat song Kershaw has ever done. A kickin’ “La Bamba”-ish Latin groove serves as the spoonful of sugar to the lyrics’ medicine (“We’re wounded but walking, dumbstruck but talking still / I don’t think we’ve made it, don’t think we ever will”). Kershaw, for the first time, sounds as if he’s having fun, a word seldom attached to his work. “Jane Doe” is another head-bopping gem, co-written with Chensey Hawkes (Kershaw wrote and produced his 1991 hit “The One and Only”) and possessing a hook big enough to snare Moby Dick.
“Die Laughing” is the most interesting song here, though, and explains the album’s title. It’s about a complete pain in the ass, who also happens to be Kershaw’s alter ego, Frank. (“Feel sorry for the bug, the one that’s up his ass / We’re pulling out the plug, we’re turning on the gas”). Kershaw’s always had a wicked sense of humor; it’s just usually been hidden by an even darker melody. “Die Laughing” embraces this dark side with a Velcro hook and produces one of the most unlikely sing-a-longs ever. He pulls a similar trick on “All Is Fair”, where he suggests that a friend quit procrastinating and just ask the girl out. However, he’s quite frank (there’s the other side to the album title: speaking bluntly) about what the results could be: “Will she fall under your spell / Will she blush and say farewell / Or will she smile at you and tell / You where to stick it?”
Alter ego Frank seems to be the driving force behind the chorus to “How Sad” as well. The verses tell the story of a boy who’s met the girl of his dreams and the plans they’re making together, only to have Frank rain on the parade in the chorus: “How sad we were to hear your news / How much you had, so much to lose”. “Show Them What You’re Made Of” closes the album, a sad acoustic number framed by a string quartet. It’s a farewell to someone — Friend? Lover? Younger version of self? — that belies its insistence that he “not get sentimental”.
To Be Frank is less of a comeback than it is a rebirth. The Nik Kershaw of 15 Minutes and Frank has very little in common with the Human Racing/The Riddle model. He’s older, wiser, but most importantly, he’s better. Alter egos and multiple personalities aside, To Be Frank is one of the most focused records Kershaw’s ever done.