GARY NUMAN – SAVAGE – Songs from a Broken World (BMG 2017)

Gary Numan - Savage

At a young and innocent age, I owned a copy of Gary Numan’s DANCE album. This was purchased for 99p in the bargain bin of Golden Discs, North Earl Street in Dublin. It was still a relatively new release and I felt bad for him that he was only getting 99p for it.

This was a time when my attention span was being fought over by Bad Manners, Toyah, Hazel O’Connor, Blondie and Public Image Limited,  and DANCE was a “difficult” album. With long maudlin tracks driven by Nick Karn’s iconic fretless bass, it was a strange one to wrap my brain around. Listening intently to the inner workings of SLOWCAR TO CHINA, A SUBWAY CALLED YOU and SHE’S GOT CLAWS, I got there in the end, all the while examining the curious pearl granny broach Mr. Numan wore in place of a necktie on the cover.

Everything about the record eventually made sense… silver lipstick, the suit, the “pigeon street” percussion and the jazzy inflections… but it was the pearl granny broach that got me – Where did it come from?… was it an valuable heirloom?… or a secret cult thing?… did it have some Bond-gadget-like function? … did his granny die and was he wearing it as a tribute?… I needed to know*.

It was the birth of the ‘80s and small detail was important.

As my ears drifted on into loud guitar music, Gary Numan fell by the wayside. After CHANGE YOUR MIND, I wasn’t even aware that he was still making records. Like many others, I thought he’d given it all up to concentrate on flying. How he got from the mess he was in by the 90s to where he is now is as comprehensively discussed as how he discovered synths in the 70s (you’ll get the full story in nearly any interview with the man)… suffice to say that somewhere along the line, many years later, my ears and Gary Numan’s music eventually paths crossed again.

Because the Internet is the bastion of conflicting information, this is either Gary Numan’s 20th or 21st album. It matters little at this point. What does matter is that is good to see him succeed. SAVAGE – SONGS FROM A BROKEN WORLD did some solid chart positioning… It fared well in England, Scotland, Ireland and New Zealand. And while a number 2 album in the British charts in 2017 doesn’t quite reap the same dividends as his trio of number one classics (Replicas, The Pleasure Principle, Telekon) way back when you had to sell millions for the same ranking, it’s a symbolic victory for someone who has seen every shade of shit in the music business and come out the other side in a relatively sanitary condition.

The Gary Numan of 2017 is definitely in his own cocoon. What works for him now is what has worked for him when he’s been at his best in the past – he appeals to the introvert in us. SAVAGE – SONGS FROM A BROKEN WORLD, apparently draws its dominant concept from a long suffering and incomplete novel. As with previous albums, it’s dystopian, godless and full of scorched earth – Mad Max basically.

The dynamic on key tracks of the album is a well-worn one of subdued verses and big guitar choruses. It was a structure crop-sprayed over a good portion of 90’s guitar music, especially that coming from the post-punk, alt rock, grunge spectrum, and elements of it have been part of the Numan sound right back to PURE.

Where he succeeds is by populating this structure with new ideas. These include an obsessively detailed treatment of the album’s percussion and rhythms, impeccable curation of synth textures and experiments with eastern melodies. There’s a lot going on everywhere, but it’s all studiously produced and afforded the necessary space to breathe – Nothing is suffocated.

GHOST NATION sets the tone of what to expect, although the single, MY NAME IS RUIN is probably the most substantial representation of what the album as a whole aiming for. A fascinating thing about Gary Numan’s voice is that it’s hardly changed in 40 years… clearly, this material demands that he uses it in a more dynamic way than his deadpan delivery of old, but he doesn’t sound any older… we get the same weird nasal snarl that was present for Tubeway Army. Further into the album, WHEN THE WORLD COMES APART and MERCY are definite highlights, and the cinematic moods of BROKEN bring these 10 tracks down with a soft landing.

It’s got to be a relief to Mr. Numan that he has found footing in a second musical life and cultivated an audience for his new material. Although obsessive Numanoids, aging taxi drivers and Sugababes fans have kept him going, that sort of insulation is never healthy for music that has so much potential beyond its own ghetto. And yet all these years later, despite success and history, he’s still some manner of strange outsider. He can rattle the ire of journalists by simply existing, and Billboard doesn’t want him in its electronic charts because he “doesn’t fit in”. There’s no real box for what Gary Numan does and the confusion is palpable. For all his reputation as an electronic artist, SAVAGE – SONGS FROM A BROKEN WORLD is as familiar as a rock record. It has more in common with any number of current arty, proggy rock bands than it does with Calvin Harris… and that can only be a good thing.

*(…unfortunately, all these years later, I never came to any conclusions about the broach…)

Review of Gary Numan – Dead Son Rising (2011)

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