The Human League
, March 31st, 2011 09:49
It has been suggested that The Human League's ninth album Credo was created chiefly with the contemporary dancefloor in mind. I can see why this might seem to be the case. The album has, after all, been released via Wall Of Sound, its singles have been accompanied by a raft of remixes from moderately credible producers and there's not a guitar in earshot. Yet if the album fits snugly into the sonic landscape of 2011 - partly thanks to a synthpop revival which seems to have been going on for about 25 fucking years - the songs themselves are simply too rich in surplus melodic content to function as straightforward dance music. Even the would-be grim Industrialists who released an EP entitled The Dignity Of Labour in 1979, couldn't prevent their pop heart from bleeding through the inhuman textures of tracks like 'Being Boiled', 'Circus Of Death', 'WXJL Tonight', 'Almost Medieval' and 'Dreams Of Leaving'. Similarly, the pulsatronic glow of their latest work fails to conceal its surfeit of hooks. Credo isn't a dance music album at all. It's a synthpop album.
A terrific synthpop album, mind. Enlisting fellow northern weirdos I Monster (aka Dean Honer and Jarrod Gosling) proves every bit the masterstroke fans of 2009's A Dense Swarm Of Ancient Stars suspected it to be. Honer and Gosling are the perfect co-conspirators, mindful of Sheffield's synthetic history without being beholden to it and just as versed in a pop-cultural lexicon which incorporates both Professor X and Richard X. The League haven't been in such trustworthy hands since the days of Dare producer Martin Rushent. Employing an arsenal of analog synthesizers and the odd bit of digital nip/tuck, the duo keep the arrangements streamlined, clean and precise, allowing the songs themselves to shine like the stars they are. The result is a non-stop barrage of addictive hi-NRG pop which drills itself into the brain with ruthless efficiency. 1990's Romantic...? , 1995's Octopus and 2001's Secrets all contained a handful of excellent tunes - 'Heart Like A Wheel', 'Filling Up With Heaven', 'Tell Me When', 'All I Ever Wanted' - but they were gummed up with filler and tainted by a forced sense of joie de vivre. On Credo, Phil Oakey, Susan Sulley and Joanne Catherall sound genuinely refreshed, optimistic, defiant, armed with a collection of songs that put the likes of La Roux, Little Boots and even Darkstar (who covered 1982 b-side 'You Remind Me Of Gold' last year, failing to equal the otherness of the original) to shame.
Circa 2011, The Human League don't sound like a group with the weight of thirty years in the business on their shoulders and thankfully, neither do they sound like a bunch of ageing opportunists. How could they, when they still factor in endearingly daft lyrics like “Gather up your skirts and trousers / Put on your best frocks and blouses / Time to go out from your houses / Must we creep round like the mouses?” These moments of banality are part and parcel of what makes The Human League, well, human, and Oakey's reputation as a shit wordsmith is ill-deserved. Elsewhere on Credo he eloquently dispenses wisdom on the subjects of polyamory ('Single Minded'), rebellion ('Breaking The Chains') and egomania (um, 'Egomaniac'). 'Sky' and 'Privilege' meanwhile are fine examples of Phil's penchant for narrative and character study.
Credo is noteworthy not only for its superlative popcraft. It also boasts the first successful reconciliation between the League's two distinct incarnations, the 1978-1980 experimental unit and the pop trio which has endured from 1981 to now. Oakey has spoken of 'Privilege' as a deliberate attempt to evoke the League of 1978, but while the song's brutalist production mimics the jackboot stomp and proto-Warp bleep 'n' bass of 'Being Boiled' it has something its predecessor did not - Joanne and Susan. Their inclusion serves as an acknowledgment both of time's passage and the unavoidable fact that without the pair, who danced into Oakey's life at a critical point, The Human League would not even exist in 2011. 'Privilege' therefore isn't an attempt to replay the past as such and its Nietzschean narrative of masculine revenge (shades of 'Get Carter', 'I Am The Law' and 'Empire State Human') suggests a continuation of a theme which seems to have fascinated Oakey for decades. Like 'Breaking The Chains' (“It doesn't really matter what they've got on you”) it hints at the angry young futurist raging beneath the frontman's distinguished salt 'n' pepper crop.
Judging from the album's startling effervescence, it seems Oakey, Sulley and Catherall have finally shrugged off the albatross of The Song Which Must Not Be Named. I'm not inclined to relate the same tired old guff concerning that particular tune, but I would like to expend a few words on the 'classic' era. How can I put this? Credo is a better album than Dare. While it's true that Dare is an important, groundbreaking album, it isn't the best synthpop album ever made; that would be Thomas Dolby's 1982 debut, The Golden Age Of Wireless. I'm not one of those joyless twats who views the recruitment of Sulley and Catherall as a fall from grace and I'm certainly not refuting the genius of producer Martin Rushent, who fashioned another great album, 1982's Love And Dancing, out of its constituent parts. I just think that in spite of its reputation and influence, Dare is basically a decent album with some tremendous songs and a few clunkers.
Credo won't match Dare in terms of sales or ubiquity, but it contains no clunkers whatsoever; it's the first truly consistent Human League album. Furthermore, until Oakey's ambition to conclude their career with a tenth album featuring “something from every former HL member in it, a co-writing credit, a small cameo, anything” is realised, it may just be the ultimate Human League album, in that it perfectly encapsulates everything cherishable about the group, everything they stand for, in eleven concise bursts of synthetic sound. Perhaps that's why it's called Credo.