The Tension And The Spark
ou'd be forgiven for not expecting much of Darren Hayes. Split from songwriting and band partner Daniel Jones, his debut album, Spin, was a predictably inconsistent batch of overwrought ballads and giddy, aimless uptempo numbers. Which makes the fact that his second album is an excellent, consistent synth-pop opus a pleasant surprise.
The Tension And The Spark consists of a handful of songs about being torn apart inside by love, a few up-tempo electro pop numbers—though nothing obviously ready for the dancefloor, some rather touching moments of self-doubt and, just because, three songs that bring a little hope in, extolling the redemptive power of love and relationships.
Relationships, though, are the cause of the hole Hayes finds himself in much of the time. The ordering of the songs makes the album seem like a disjointed narrative, with snippets from various points in the story of Hayes' disillusionment with love, himself and the cult of celebrity. You could easily rearrange the album so it flows logically from A to B, but the confused, all-over-the-place feel is partially what makes it so great.
Right from track one, “Darkness”, the album's two main lyrical themes are inescapable; firstly, the contrast of light and dark to describe emotional states, and secondly, the recurring motif of being in pieces or parts, or otherwise broken or fractured.
“Darkness” also sets the musical tone for the album, and it's quite a rich sonic palette on show here, despite the use of little more than synth and drum machines. A little guitar pops up on "Pop!ular" in the second verse to add some grit to the otherwise light and playful take on popularity and fame. It shows up under slightly more extreme conditions on "Void", distorted to the point of ugliness behind a musical backdrop formed around Hayes’ high-pitched moans in the verses.
The surprisingly ornate, elegiac "Sense Of Humour" may show its trip-hop-lite roots a little too much, but its defeated, downcast middle section changes it from a series of statements of Darren's virtues ("You will find my style appealing / I will overpower you with wit") into an almost pathetic plea for love: "If only you'd run to me / If only you'd relax upon your rule".
Darren's insecurity is at its most compelling on "Unlovable", in which he attacks a former lover for their acts of insensitivity and cruelty in the verses before the darkly accusative yet plaintive chorus: "You make me feel like my father never loved me / You make me feel like the act of love is empty". It's hard to deny that there's some real angst behind darkened lyrics like that, and the thudding, clipped rhythm of the verses fits Darren’s bitter but toothless delivery perfectly, as well as acting as a fine contrast to the woozy, airy soundscapes in the chorus.
It's actually where love comes to the rescue that The Tension And The Spark goes a little astray. "Light" is probably one permutation of the darkness/light theme too far and takes too long to get off the ground. The minimal love songs "Feel" and "Dublin Sky" are very pretty and quite uplifting, but they don't feel as tightly focused lyrically and sonically as the rest of the album. They’re not bad at all, although “Dublin Sky” is probably a little bit wet, and stands as the album’s weakest moment despite being light years ahead in honesty and intelligence than any of Savage Garden’s ballads.
The flippant, slapdash songs, "Pop!ular" and "Love And Attraction", work extremely well though, the former interpolating M's "Pop Musik" and the latter winning the listener over with quick, if slightly daft wordplay and an instantly catchy chorus. Even the serious, brooding closer "Ego", almost like a show-tune in its histrionic self-demolition, lightens its heavy subject matter with wry lines about avoiding personal pronouns.
Best of all, though, is "I Forgive You", which sounds like the Pet Shop Boys melding the theme song from The Sopranos with a bit of Kylie Minogue's "Breathe". Darren has never had the voice for flat-out abuse and hatred, but here he does bitter contempt perfectly—the title being a misleading one, because with each repetition of “I forgive you” his voice becomes colder and angrier.
While nothing on here is likely to supplant Savage Garden’s big ballad hits from the radio stations that still play them—their loss—it’s still a surprisingly cohesive and intelligent work. That it’s come from such an unlikely source doesn’t matter; The Tension And The Spark has heart, hooks and originality to spare.
Reviewed by: Edward Oculicz
Reviewed on: 2004-09-22