College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #224 to #222

224. Siouxsie and the Banshees, Hyæna (1984)

Siouxsie and the Banshees were in a sort of limbo for a time before the recording and release of their sixth studio album, Hyæna. They hit a crisis point not long after the release of their previous studio effort, A Kiss in the Dreamhouse, when guitarist John McGeoch had a nervous breakdown during a concert. had a nervous breakdown during a concert, a situation at least partially attributable to his alcohol abuse issues. The band reached out to their former collaborator Robert Smith, then experiencing his own state of flux with the Cure, and he stepped in for the remainder of the tour. It was more than a stopgap solution, but Smith recording new music as an official Banshee was further delayed by vocalist Siouxsie Sioux and percussionist Budgie recording their first album with side project the Creatures. The band released the live album Nocturne, with Smith on guitar, as a stopgap, but he wanted a more formal document of his time band in the fold. It was reportedly that Cure frontman who prompted the group to finally return the studio, laying down a cover of the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” for release as a single. To everyone’s surprise, it was a major hit in the U.K., becoming the first, and only, Siouxsie and the Banshees single to crack the Top 5. A new full-length was clearly needed.

Siouxsie and the Banshees reunited with Mike Hedges, producer of A Kiss in the Dreamhouse, perhaps hoping the familiarity with a process that was sure to be trickier than usual since they had very little material ready to go. Bassist Steven Severin said that the album was entirely written in the studio, which explained the sonic experimentation on the record. In general, the music is fuller and bolder than on previous releases. The most striking example is the thick, vibrant album opener “Dazzle,” its already dense arrangements given more heft by a group of musicians from the London Symphony Orchestra (billed as the Chandos Players due to restrictions on use of the symphony’s name). Although the credites are leaner for the rest of the record, that cut is emblematic. “Pointing Bone” is prickly and alive, and “Swimming Horses” is hypnotic and burbly at the same time.

The callback to the Beatles seemingly put the band in a slightly psychedelic mode for the full album, albeit with the pleasing friction of dueling instincts regularly intruding. “Bring Me the Head of the Preacher Man” is all aswirl, but all with the fierce tug of punk energy in its veins, and “Take Me Back” combines the morose seduction of the Doors with unpredictable carnival rhythms. The band’s longstanding goal of eluding categorization is effectively realized. Maintaining that vibe, the band’s take on “Dear Prudence” was wedged into the Hyæna track list on U.S. pressings.

If Smith was enthusiastic about being a Banshee, he also soon discovered there were limits to his energy. Around the same time he was working on Hyæna, Smith was also chipping away at The Top, a record billed to the Cure, though it could also be fairly termed a Smith solo album in disguise. Before the tour in support of Hyæna, Smith resigned from the band, meaning Siouxsie and the Banshees needed again to literally regroup. By this time, at least, they had plenty of practice.

223. Depeche Mode, Some Great Reward (1984)

According to some commercial and most critical yardsticks, Depeche Mode’s third studio album, Construction Time Again, was a setback. The band felt they were onto something, though, and tried to basically duplicate its creative process for their next LP, notably recording the album in London and finishing the mixing in Berlin. Schedules conspired against them, and the quartet found themselves jetting to Germany still needing to lay down several tracks. By their own accounting, the premature change of security had immediate, noticeable influence on the music they recorded. The industrial music that was setting German clubs to throbbing seeped into the Depeche Mode’s sensibility. No one was going to suddenly mistaken them for Einstürzende Neubauten, but the introduction of some harsher sounds and studio effects gave the material a hint of abrasion often lacking in Depeche Mode’s output.

For better or worse, the resulting album, Some Great Reward, often seems to be at war with itself, the dueling instincts that drive it pushed to stalemate as often as resolution. “Something to Do” is uncommonly agitated, which comes across as fussy, and “It Doesn’t Matter” is the stiffest expression of misery (“I know somewhere you are dreaming/ Though it’s definitely not of me” are lyrics that Steven Patrick Morrissey himself would have struck from the page as too self-pitying). More effectively, “People Are People” has an upbeat sound yet a clanging, noisy undercurrent, the complex battle between the two blessedly obscures some exceedingly trite lyrics (“So we’re different colours and we’re different creeds/ And different people have different needs”). Under scrutiny, the cut might elicit winces among the discerning, but there’s real charisma embedded in its grooves. Why look for flaws to gripe about?

Depeche Mode are at their most winning when the hit upon the ideal combination of professional polish, unashamed high drama, and persnickety pop hook. The synchronization of these parts can catalyze almost miraculous pop alchemy. “Somebody” is a deeply morose ballad that manages emotional poignancy through sheer conviction, and “Blasphemous Rumours” delivers impish provocation (“I don’t want to start any blasphemous rumours/ But I think that God’s got a sick sense of humour/ And when I die, I expect to find him laughing”) with splendid sweep. “Master and Servant” might be the closest the band ever came to a real banger, even if the language of the central metaphor hasn’t aged especially well.

Some Great Reward was a hit for Depeche Mode. Critics received it more warmly that any of the band’s other albums to that point, and it took the group to new chart peaks in both side of the Atlantic.

222. The Costello Show featuring Elvis Costello, King of America (1986)

“There was a tremendous amount of planning that went into that record,” producer T-Bone Burnett said of King of America, Elvis Costello’s tenth studio album. “We had pages and pages of production notes.”

Costello and Burnett spent a good part of 1985 touring together, and the pair plotted together the whole time. Costello was smarting from the end of his ten-year marriage to Mary Burgoyne. He was feeling maybe more consternation about his 1984 album, Goodbye Cruel World, which ten years later he was was still referring to with unguarded derision, writing in the liner notes of a reissue, “Congratulations! You’ve just purchased our worst album.” Feeling a series of compromises had ruined the album, Costello was determined to set his own course on the follow-up and he wanted everything to be precisely right. Costello played demos for Burnett, and the two made wishlists of musicians who could back him up on individual tracks. When it came time to record the record in Burnett’s Los Angeles stomping grounds, most of the desired sidemen were secured, stirring animosity in Costello’s regular backing band at the time, the Attractions. They were there, too, but put off enough that they played poorly, in Costello’s estimation. Their shared certainty that were being shunted aside proved a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the resulting album, King of America, the Attraction appear on only one track, the mid-tempo “Suit of Lights.”

In some ways, the Attraction receding from participation gave Costello the imprimatur to assert the new beginning he so clearly craved. The album was billed to the Costello Show (with different embellishments: “featuring Elvis Costello” in the U.S. and “featuring the Attractions and the Confederates” in the U.K.), the songwriting credits were assigned to Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus (Costello’s given name), and the acoustic guitar parts were officially played by the Little Hands of Concrete (a nickname Nick Lowe once bestowed upon Costello in recognition of a propensity for snapping guitar strings). King of America, Costello wanted everyone to know, was a decisive step away from where he’d recently been dwelling artistically.

King of America might also be Costello’s best album after the career-opening string of winners that lasted until either Get Happy!! or Trust, depending on who’s doing the assessing. It’s certainly where the uniquely erudite version of Costello fully emerged, his scabrous sensibility intact but given added heft by the literary complexity of the lyrics. It’s Bob Dylan with a fancier thesaurus. “Brilliant Mistake” is the perfect realization of this evolving identity, melodically impeccable and piercingly smart: “She said that she was working for the ABC News/ It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use/ Her perfume was unspeakable/ It lingered in the air.” The spare, pointed “Indoor Fireworks” is in the same upper echelon and carries a real emotional wallop: “You were the spice of life/ The gin in my vermouth/ And though the sparks would fly/ I thought our love was fireproof.”

Like many great albums, King of America is clearly the product of a singularly focuses artists that reverberates with variety, a flurry of blows that shows Costello is capable of dazzling in just about any musical guise he slips into. “Lovable” is reminiscent of John Lennon when the former Beatle cast back to his skiffle influences, “American Without Tears” has a whiff of country lament, and “Eisenhower Blues,” originally written and performed by Chicago bluesman J.B. Lenoir, is a giddy rockabilly goof. “Little Palaces” bears the heritage-tune vestiges of Costello’s recent time spent producing the Pogues, and romancing their bassist Cait O’Riordan, who would soon become his second wife. The only misstep on the album is a middling cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” first recorded by Nina Simone. Naturally, that’s the song Columbia Records decided should be a single. It tanked, and the label promptly lost interest in further promoting the album.

Costello was back on track, solidly so. Perhaps in response to the satisfaction of the creative rebound, Costello’s energies were back at the level of his earliest years, when new music came roaring out of him. Around six months after the release of King of America, Costello had another full-length album ready for delivery to the masses.

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs.

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