You can’t take anything for granted these days. Used to be there were verities—things you could be sure about, things that propped you up. And I’m not even talking about the big things, the World Trade Center-sized things. No, I’m talking about the little things. Like never having to worry about the critics genuflecting before a Jerry Bruckheimer flick. Or about Bob Dylan mutating, seemingly overnight, into Vincent Price. Or about the scruffy London-based guitar-pop outfit Hefner putting out a synth album.
Well, Bruckheimer and Dylan I can live with. Hefner, though, I take personally. And at the risk of sounding like one of those stodgy folk purists who shouted “Judas! Traitor!” at the heretic Dylan with his electric guitar and silk polka-dot shirts, I would like to be the first to say to Hefner: “Judas! Traitor!”
It’s not as if I couldn’t see it coming. Though I absolutely loved the stripped-down, city-billy sound of 1998’s Breaking God’s Heart, 1999’s The Fidelity Wars, and the B-sides collection Boxing Hefner, I was ambivalent about 2000’s We Love the City. Frontman Darren Hayman, the Gordon Gano soundalike whose obsessive lyrical focus on smoking, drinking, and having sex with girls who smoke and drink made him a man after my own heart, suddenly started singing about things—such as London radio and Maggie Thatcher—that he had no intention of putting to his lips. I was crestfallen. We Love the City boasted some great songs, sure, but it sounded bloated and lacked the simple, carnal charm of Hefner’s previous works.
So when confronted with Hefner’s latest, Dead Media, I feared the worst. Still, I sat down to listen to it with an open mind and no expectations—only to leap to my feet, a minute or so into the first track, and shout, “Judas! Traitor!”
But enough. Hefner’s new sound is daring. Indeed, the best of the new synth-driven tracks inspired in me that combination of stunned betrayal (What is this shit?) and excitement (What is this shit?) that occurs only when a great artist dares to reinvent him- or herself before your very ears. It’s a feeling you don’t get too often. I hadn’t felt it since the first time I heard David Bowie’s Young Americans.
I wouldn’t call Dead Media as great a risk as Young Americans, but like that album, it leaves me feeling both exhilarated and sad: exhilarated by its sheer audacity and sad because I can’t help but believe that, no matter how good Dead Media sounds, it marks yet another step away from Hefner’s glorious minimalist origins.
Hefner rubs your face in synth goo from the get-go. The album’s opening track, “Dead Media,” features both a spacey keyboard figure and an even spacier-sounding Hayman, who’s now more interested in Interzone than intercourse. As one arpeggio is piled atop another and Hayman natters on about art-deco clowns and foreign-language films, you may find yourself trying to grasp hold of a word at the very edges of your consciousness. Well, let me help you out. The word, music fans, is “Ruggles.” As in Carl. As in dissonant counterpoint, retrograde inversion, and a whole bunch of other avant-garde thingamajiggery. Why, I’d rip the Hefner Fan Club ID bracelet right off my wrist if the song weren’t, well, so utterly heavenly.
As if that weren’t discombobulating enough, the second tune, “Trouble Kid,” is purest wham-bam-thank-you-glam pop, all kick-drum and crunchy guitar riffs and New Wave keyboard figures, complete with singsong verses and a big, dumb chorus. Subtract Hayman’s whine of a voice and you might suspect you were listening to some unholy alliance between Gary Numan and “Eminence Front”-era Who. In a similar vein is “The King of Summer,” which Hayman himself has described as a “shameless attempt to write a summer hit.” The result is unadulterated sunshine: hand claps, punchy Faces-style guitar lines, and a finale in which Hayman sings, “Because I am/The King of Summer” while the band roars behind him like the sea battering Brighton Rock.
Even better is “Alan Bean,” Hefner’s paean to the fourth man to walk on the moon. Synths both stately and squiggly frame Hayman’s examination of the song’s implied question: What does a man do after going to the moon? (Answer: Spend the rest of his life painting pictures of the moon.) “Ever felt like giving up?/I’ve felt like giving up/But not since 1969,” sings Hayman, and to hear the affirmation in his voice is to know that transcendence lies not in traveling to the stars but in coming back and going on.
Likewise, “Peppermint Taste” is classic Hefner, a celebration of the flavor of Hayman’s first girlfriend’s mouth, but it gets updated by a perky synthesizer arrangement. “You had peppermint gum stuck behind your teeth/You had white shoes and bare knees in 1983/I had your breast in my hand underneath the tree,” sings Hayman, in what can be described only as frustration recollected in tranquility. “When the Angels Play Their Drum Machines” is catchy enough, too, what with Hayman’s bouncy synthesizers and Antony Harding’s beats propelling the melody forward into the Human League’s past. It’s a shame Hayman’s lyrics (“We are both adults/Our eyes are open wide/Let’s push away/The world outside”) are so uncharacteristically lame; at least it’s the album’s only real misstep.
But if—like me—you still find yourself itching for some more down-to-earth sounds, you should know that Dead Media also includes a number of relatively unadorned tunes that wouldn’t sound out of place on the band’s previous releases. “Half a Life” is a ravishingly pretty number about how “life without my sweetheart is half a life” that starts with Hayman listing the things that help make existence bearable: “Thank you for the sign post/Thank you for the street lights/Thank you for the taxis that take me home to her/Thank you for the skin/The smooth warm skin on the backs of her thighs.” It also features some great vocals by frequent Hefner collaborator Jack Hayter, who comes off sounding like the second coming of the late great Ronnie Lane. Hayter’s voice also adds a wonderful resonance to album-ender “Home,” which, with its xylophone and steel guitar, stands in sharp contrast to the now sound of much of the rest of Dead Media.
But no matter how good things get, change is a bitch. It’s bad enough that Time bum-rushes us through life before tumbling us into separate graves, but does he has to have his errand boy Change snatch the candy from our mouths in the meantime? Remember what I was saying about Young Americans? Well, the truth is I’ll never love it the way I do Ziggy Stardust, and if there were any way I could have prevented Bowie from ch-ch-changing short of pressing a pistol to his fabulous orange mullet, by God I’d have done it, and gladly. The same goes for Hefner. In a press release accompanying Dead Media, Hayman says, “Incidentally for those of you who find the idea of a synthesizer led Hefner a bit hard to take…get used to it kids.”
Get used to it? Look pal, I’m still trying to get used to the breakup of Loggins & Messina. And what’s one little bunch of Londoners trading in their guitars for keyboards compared with that? CP