Human League - Crash
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Since I never thought the Human League were the bee’s knees I approached Crash without trepidation. I figured this silly collective got lucky with Dare—the most austere, rhythmically-challenged synth-pop album ever—and a handful of subsequent singles (I rep for “The Lebanon”). Silly? Let me count the ways: lead cyborg Philip Oakey’s ridiculous haircuts and affection for thirdhand futurism; their malnourished visual sense, which, for an act that employed an onstage projectionist, is galling; the absence of irony which in retrospect is one of their more endearing qualities, but renders their worst moments more gauche than, say, ABC or Scritti Politti’s.
Plus, let’s not forget that no rockists were championing the League in 1986. As representatives of a genre for which Rolling Stone critics had little patience (unless you were the Pet Shop Boys circa Actually), they had nothing to lose by hiring the two hottest producers in the biz. It sounds like an ideal union: Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ rhythmic spritz and Philip Oakey’s affectlessness. The result is a mismatch so complete that a judge in divorce court might have shed a few tears. Oakey and keyboardist/guitarist Ian Burden lacked songs worthy of Jam & Lewis’ brawn. So, in a fascinating move, they indentured their songwriting to new masters.
Consider its brazenness. Imagine a contemporary act of comparable one-dimensionality and fading commercial prospects—the Strokes, say—ceding control to Missy Elliott and Timbaland and you will approximate Crash. Simply put: Jam & Lewis can make fun look as multihued as tragedy while the Human League made tragedy look as parched as an obituary.
We must take comfort in small pleasures. Oakey’s Morris Day impression is as hilarious as Morris Day’s Prince impression; the “Nasty” clone “I Need Your Loving” even gives him a chance to do “The Bird.” On “Jam,” the producers swathe him in cybernetic Busby Berkeley, while Oakey huffs and puffs, unable to blow that fucking house down (better anyway than “Swang,” in which Oakey assures us that his Mr. Roboto soft-shoes are “real city dancing”). He relaxes some on “Are You Ever Coming Back?” and “Money” and anticipates Curiosity Killed the Cat by almost six months on “The Real Thing.” Heh—the real thing. On an album with ironies as subterranean as Crash’s, we take our yuks where we can find them.
But Jam & Lewis know exactly what they’re doing on the set’s two greatest songs. Suzanne Sulley belts the iridescent chorus of “Love is All That Matters,” her presence motivating The Little Engine That Could to chug past the verses as if he really had somewhere to go, which he does, for “Love is All That Matters” is a most clever sequel to Dare’s “Love Action,” on which Oakey, at his most charmingly pompous, willed himself to believe in love. Thanks to the assured thud-thud of the drum program and Sulley’s duet with a synth playing a rollercoaster melody line (seek ye the 12” single), “Love is All That Matters” shows how a strong work ethic can create an estimable simulation of romantic bliss.
On “Human,” their second American number-one, the Worst Singer of All Time, baring his circuitry, is sublimated into gentle waves of sound and synth—love action itself, you might say. The Human League ceases to exist; they become a holographic simulacrum for Jam & Lewis themselves. His voice straining to escape the confines of its basso-pomp origins, Oakey admits that baby-did-a-bad-bad-thing with a sincerity that Jam-Lewis no doubt must have programmed into his mainframe (if “Human” were better sung it would dissolve into camp, worthy of Whitney Houston). Then Suzanne Sulley enters, in a brilliant spoken-word turn that eclipses her work on “Don’t You Want Me,” in which she humanized the complaints of Oakey’s whiny cad. Here she flings Oakey’s macho bullshit back at him by first admitting to the same trespasses (“When we were apart, I was human too”—understated perfection), then by mocking his excuses in a genderfuck (“I am just a man!”) of wounded empathy. Sin now, rue later: it’s worthy of Christine McVie.
I don’t need to tell you any of this. “Human” is playing on adult-contemporary stations as we speak (Jam & Lewis would write variations on its chords: Alexander O’Neal’s “Sunshine” and Janet Jackson’s “Come Back to Me”), you can download “Love is All That Matters,” Crash is back in print, and Jam-Lewis’ bank balances may rival Prince’s. And they never worked with English stiffs again.