What a difference a few years makes. By the mid-’80s the harsh scary themed New Romantic music of the dawn of the decade had become the light fluffy pop fare of bubble gum smacking mall rat teens everywhere. Not only did the themes change and go happy, but the lower cost of the synthesizer made it easy for anyone to get one. By pairing it up with a drum machine, you could make your own pop band. All you needed was the right image and hair spray. While it was not quite that easy, the synthesizer had changed pop music. Even old school legends like Elton John had adapted them alongside his piano.
The very face of pop music had changed as the second British invasion matured into an occupation of the charts. An occupation made up of big haired big shouldered bomber jacket wearing synth bands. No longer relegated to the fringes of radio airplay, they had become the primary chart toppers in many respects.
Few represent the domestication of new wave music like Howard Jones. From out of nowhere it seemed the young British singer-songwriter had a hit on his hands. “New Song”, a pre-album release in his native Britain was just sweet and sappy enough to work it way to the top of English charts in the winter of 1984. Not long after his first full album Human Lib, would repeat the success of “New Song” in America. Jones being a musician and song writer, that gave him a tremendous advantage over many of the autoplay acts jumping n the synth bandwagon. Despite his talent, Jones would offer no new or original sound with Human’s Lib.
“New Song” mimicked the style of Tears For Fears, a band whose emerging popularity in England would eventually engulf America. Human’s Lib also reflected styles from the Thompson Twins, another English band who was popular in America. It would be the next song “What Is Love” that established Howard Jones as a true star in America. The song exemplified Jones style, danceable pop with just enough edge to sound modern. Jones, who voice sounded frail for the most part was capable of impressive highs, made to sound even more heavenly with studio overdubbing.
Despite all the happy puppy love themed lyrics, there were traces of old new romanticism audible on “Conditioning”, a song that tries to recall the mind control themes of Gary Numan or Human League, but to cartoonish effect. Small touches like this coupled with the overtly bright and cheery disposition of Jones lyrics split him critically with much of the music press. In some ways Jones had become the poster boy for what had gone wrong with new wave music. Even the cover art was somewhat deceptive. The morbid Picasso-styled faces might have suggested heavier material, but this album taught me to never judge a record by it’s cover.
While some critics were harsh and were still waxing nostalgic about the gloom and doom of old new wave, the public in general accepted Howard Jones with open arms. I my self found myself conflicted between like and dislike. After all he represented a breach of my pop bias, yet his music was firmly rooted in the style that launched my silly bias. I was always a sucker for gloom and melancholy. Where that existed on Human’s Lib like on “Don’t Always Look at the Rain”, it seemed to wear better than the rest of the album over time.
Human’s Lib can sometimes come across like a portfolio of popular styles from 1982-84, but Jones’ skill as a musician, vocalist and arranger along with his co-writer Bill Bryant helps to pull it off a best practices kind of pop album. Jones music would continue to make its mark on the top 40 in both Europe and America, to the point of no longer being new wave the way it was remember just a few years earlier at the beginning of the decade.