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ABC
The Lexicon Of Love 2 Chris Roberts , May 27th, 2016 09:01

Allow an old romantic to romanticise the sort-of post-New Romantic era. We were going to change the world. We were young, stylish, confident, modern and shiny and we were going to kill off all those whiskery, weary Bob Dylans and Rolling Stones and Beach Boys and Doors in their sweat-stained checked shirts and jeans, and do away with tired “axe” riffs and red-faced punk rockers with their awful hair and bad breath. We would make things better with the awesome seductive power of disco and arch lyrics. We had imbibed Bowie. We were going to invite girls in, for dancing and stuff. We were going to reference art manifestos and make pop music smarter and silkier. I say “we”: even as a naïve, clueless fan you felt part of it; you engaged, you cared, you were one of the fey, foppish, book-reading, film-watching, idealist army. Pop music was important. Everyone talked about it. It was where intelligent wannabes wanted to become themselves.

ABC’s The Lexicon Of Love was the flagship, the lead element. Along with sacred texts like Torch and Say Hello Wave Goodbye by Soft Cell, Atomic by Blondie, Quiet Life by Japan, Pale Shelter by Tears For Fears, even Love Is A Stranger by Eurythmics, it was going to bring down the crusty old clodhoppers. (There may be some chronology flaws here; I’d rather suggest how it feels in memory than the logistics). We had suaveness and synths. Dexys had pointed out how passe guitars were. There would be a new language, a new vocabulary. And then we’d really swing; the new decade, the new generation. The new.

It never quite panned out like that. Obviously there were some victories, but today’s nostalgia shows will screen hits by The Human League, Culture Club, Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran, the first three of whom had their hearts and minds in the right place, and then fast-forward to the big impact of Frankie Goes To Hollywood. The energy dispersed soon thereafter, and the old men in jeans were allowed back in. Authenticity was revered again, promoted above artifice or theatricality. We lost. And then grunge made it OK to churn out those same old, same old guitars, and Oasis and Stone Roses made being thick and unimaginative popular. The visceral was back in, the conceptual was out. “You’re over-thinking it!” they scolded. “Just paint some nice trees we can recognise as trees!” The tide had run away from the risks and dangers presented by grey matter, reverting to the grey.

Here’s a thing which happened while magic was in the air. My original copy of The Lexicon Of Love L.P. was stolen from our flat by burglars. We had no jobs, no money, couldn’t afford a replacement. Inexplicably – I realise it’s truly weird that I did this - I wrote a letter to the record company, telling them my sad story and how much the album had meant to me. A week later a fresh copy of the album arrived in the post, signed by the band, with a note saying how sorry they were to hear about this and how they hoped this would make up for my ill fortune. We were elated.

The Lexicon Of Love was number one for a month in the summer of 1982. I have no idea if it was a “glorious” or “endless” or “long hot” summer, but the music can’t have been bad. ABC didn’t want to repeat themselves after that – “that movie was over, we deconstructed” - and took stabs at beauty in other ways, so they never, in career terms, fully “built” on it. Yet its reputation, with the benefits of hindsight, has only grown. It’s one of the Eighties’ landmark musical statements, as crisp and vital and twinklingly alive an album as you’ll ever hear. Every moment is considered, but every moment has its blood up. There’s not a dead second.

Now some of this was down to Trevor Horn’s production. It effectively made his name, and his epic gloss went on to boss the decade. Here, every decision he made was exciting and excited: wow, it says, we can really do new things like this, nobody is stopping us; in fact they’re applauding. Yet, as he’s emphasised himself, it’s a fallacy to give him all the credit. Anne Dudley’s string orchestrations tried another dramatic flavour. And what really keeps the 34-year-old songs whip-cracking away are Martin Fry’s bold lyrical couplets. Wry and snarky yet passionately romantic, self-mocking yet angst-ridden, he taps into the mother lode of popular music’s raison d’etre. He’s a punked-up Billy Fury, a funked-up Leonard Cohen, a socialist, socialite Cole Porter just about keeping his young broken heart above water.

That was then.

This is now.

The Lexicon Of Love 2 is, Martin Fry has told me, “not nostalgia, but NOWstalgia”. He insists that, like him, like everybody, the world has changed dramatically, and he wanted to reflect how his perspective on life and love has shifted. “One of the characters here is me, and he’s grown up.” Think: John Updike’s Rabbit. So while you can moan that the title is a shrewd marketing move, there’s real purpose and thought driving this long-overdue sequel. There’s no Horn involved in 2016, but Dudley’s orchestrations are exquisite – you pick up new little flourishes each time you listen. The luxuriant songs, written with a variety of collaborators, are strong and robust in their romantic, rhythmic tensions, and Fry’s rhyming couplets float like a middle-income voter and sting like a narked nettle. His voice remains that of a trusted story-teller, a narrator no more or less narcissistic than most of us, calmly confessional.

LOL2 – oh, kids, LOL wasn’t even a thing in 1982 – opens big, as it must, as is its birthright, with the Technicolor Panavision sway of ‘Flames Of Desire’, which reasons that love can crush everything if it so wishes. ‘Viva Love’ – a catchy anthem from soup to nuts – twists nimbly with “somehow love survives”. It’s all about the somehow. There are “sonnets and soliloquys” in the more restrained ‘Ten Below Zero’, and candid semi-autobiography in ‘Confessions Of A Fool’, its oohs and aahs a reminder that few grasp the essence of how Smokey sings like Fry does.

'The Singer Not The Song', another marvel of personal-becomes-universal mirror-gazing, packs muscle in the manner of ‘4 Ever 2 Gether’, while ‘The Ship Of The Seasick Sailor’ is about bouncing back, defiant and unbowed: a recurring theme here. If you ever wondered what a Bond theme influenced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis would be like, ‘Kiss Me Goodbye’ is it. That’s when we get wry Fry nodding in a Proustian manner to ‘The Look Of Love’, intoning “I cared enough to know that I could never leave you”. The mature insights into the slings and once-poison arrows of outrageous fortune are a joy and a solace on this album.

On ‘I Believe In Love’, our hero runs across rooftops, skates on thin ice and stands in the path of onrushing trains, still somehow finding time to play Russian roulette in the eye of a hurricane. It almost reviews itself: “You got light, you got shade, you got beauty and beast/ All come together to make a masterpiece…”

Two co-writes with Dudley create the climax: the intimate ‘The Love Inside The Love’ (“we walked as gods in a state of grace”) and the determinedly unsentimental but optimistic ‘Brighter Than The Sun’. The first time you hear The Lexicon Of Love 2, you think it’s a respectable, likeable top-up to the legacy. After you’ve heard it a few times, you’ve absorbed that it’s a great and gorgeous album in its own right. Fry has returned to the scene of the rhymes and only gone and pulled it off.

“Someone’s in love somewhere tonight”, sings Martin, pinpointing the eternal relevance of his songs. If it’s odd now seeing ABC on ITV’s Wednesday Night At The Palladium (or whatever it’s called) rather than on the cutting-edge of pop culture, well, there’s this thing called the passing of time you might’ve heard of. We never did get rid of the Bob Dylans and the Rolling Stones, but in a reductive world ABC’s music and language still peals with irreducible truth. The Lexicon Of Love has a brand new chapter. Read it and weep like a river, but then smile, because tears are not enough. The future that got away has got it going on again.

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