Maybe it was the namecheck on Train’s grating hit “Hey Soul Sister”. Or maybe it’s that major labels, desperate for cash, are emptying the vaults of anything that can possibly be turned into product. Or it’s that the 1980s revival has hit a fever pitch, or a perfect storm involving all of the above. Whatever the case, RCA/Legacy has decided to release Mr. Mister’s fourth album, Pull, after two decades on the shelf. And less than three months after release, it’s already winning awards. Well, at least one award. Pull was named The Onion AV Club’s “Least Essential Long-Lost Record by a Band With a Terrible Name”. No, this isn’t exactly Lifehouse, but don’t stop reading here. This is something of a redemption story. Because, against all odds, Pull justifies the belated release, and this without much nostalgia value at all.
If you remember Mr. Mister at all, and few outside a core group of fanatics likely do, it’s for the flash-in-the-pan pair of number one hits the band had in the mid-’80s: “Broken Wings” and “Kyrie”. Both songs upheld the standard rock production values of the time; that is, synths, big drums, trebly guitars, and more synths. Listen to either today and there’s no mistaking which half-decade they were created in. But “Broken Wings” and “Kyrie” also revealed a band that was more thoughtful and atmospheric than many of its contemporaries. All four band members were already accomplished session musicians and singers, and in the handsome, sandy-voiced vocalist/bassist Richard Page, Mr. Mister had an equally-attractive but far less pompous version of Sting.
But Mr. Mister were one of the first of many bands to suffer a phenomenon that was rampant in the music business during the 1990s, as digital technology began to threaten the major labels’ stranglehold on the industry. They were victims of the ol’ Record Label/A&R Regime Change. In other words, the people who signed them to RCA and supported and promoted them were gone. Some new suits with eyes on the bottom line were in charge. Despite the two smash singles and a number one album, Welcome to the Real World, Mr. Mister never had another major hit. When in 1990 they turned in the less commercial, more sprawling Pull, RCA passed and the band split soon after.
Naturally, Page now describes Pull as a special album, the band’s best work. The surprise is he’s right. Pull has a few signifiers of its time — step right up, fretless bass and Yamaha DX-7 and Roland D-50 synth presets! Overall, though, it sounds remarkably contemporary. Mr. Mister ditched most of the sequencers and electronic drums, and indulged their more progressive and jazz fusion tendencies. This may sound like a disaster, but the band kept just enough pop smarts to prevent themselves from going off the rails. Pull abounds with odd time signatures and syncopated rhythms, but it also has tunes. It’s almost like a consistent sampler of the prog and jazz-influenced pop sounds of the day.
Imagine Talk Talk’s left-field, post-jazz manifesto Spirit of Eden, but done with the intention of creating a million-seller. That’s the feeling you get on tracks like “Burning Bridge” and “No Words to Say”, with their subtle arrangements and crisply-mixed, kettle-like drums. There are more up-front, energetic moments, too. Opener “Learning to Crawl” is downright powerful, an Eastern-sounding synthesizer leading to a defiant piano arpeggio before the drums and guitars come crashing in. This isn’t far from what Yes were doing around that time. Indeed, Yes’s Trevor Rabin contributes guitar to Pull. Sure beats Asia, I’ll tell you that much. “I Don’t Know Why” starts off with a rush of pure Rush, before mellowing out and then picking back up again. “Crazy Boy” has a laid back, Steely Day-type feel, not quite meriting the word “groove” but coming close. The nervous energy of “Close Your Eyes” recalls late-period Police.
As far as pop moments go, “Waiting in My Dreams” and “Lifetime” fit the bill, and the latter is catchy in a good-vibe sort of way. The dramatic “Surrender” gives a nice summary of what Pull is up to, mixing pop, prog, and light world music influences in the way that made Peter Gabriel a superstar. Props to the Procol Harum-style organ, too. Throughout, Price proves to be a capable, easy-on-the-ears vocalist who knows when to just let the music do its thing. The album is sprinkled with some nice harmonies, too.
In a sense, it’s not hard to hear why RCA rejected Pull. Any number of tracks would have, and still would, sound good on album-oriented radio, but nothing jumps out and says, “Pop hit!”. But the album also suggests Mr. Mister could have had a rich future ahead of them. They had already escaped many of the trappings of the ’80s. Ironically, that’s why it took another two decades for Pull to see the light of day. It’s not essential, but it’s far from a laugher. Score it as a pleasant, albeit very late, surprise, then.