Gary Numan – The Pleasure Principle

Calxie #2: Axe murderers: albums that could have killed the guitar. Nominee 1 of 4

So here’s the second Calxie. Look up Gary Numan on Wikipedia. I’ll wait…
As of the 6th of March 2011, three out of the four pictures of him on that page feature him holding a guitar, whereas all of them make him look like a rock star. The latter he is, but, probably for the first time, he showed that it was possible to be one without a guitar in sight. Everything about Numan was strange; he was almost an anti-rock-star at the time: robotic, nervous stage presence, socially awkward, plagued by acne and what would later prove to be Asperger’s syndrome, and, on top of all that, still living with his parents. Numan channelled this anxiety and interpersonal difficulty into his mechanical music. His first album after splitting from his band Tubeway Army still holds up brilliantly; although the sounds aren’t as weird as they were first considered, it still sounds as great as the songs themselves. Numan’s slightly off-human voice fits right into this retro future-scape. He fed synths through guitar effects pedals to make these teflon textures that grind like lawnmower engines and swoop like stainless planes. The lyrics are bundles of neuroses yet are still a few brush-strokes away from being truly human. Numan had been on anti-depressants during his youth, the emotion-dampening effects of which could be an obvious reference point for these cold, functional thought processes laid out in the words.

Now, onto the songwriting: this album is much, much more than just ‘Cars’ – though ‘Cars’ is still excellent and not to be ignored. Like many albums, it has its instant hits (‘Metal’, ‘M.E.’, ‘Cars’) and it has its growers (‘Films’, ‘Conversation’, ‘Engineers’) but given time they all work out to be as rewarding and addictive as each other. ‘Metal’ is sung from the perspective of a robot groping for the definition of an emotion; ‘Complex’ is the album’s closest thing to a ballad on the album, with Numan asking someone to keep him safe in androidian tones while a violin warmly courses in the background; ‘Observer’ sounds like a hymn sung by a CCTV camera; there’s so much ground to explore here, and so much to be absorbed in.

There isn’t a single guitar on ‘The Pleasure Principle’, unless you count the occasional bass, but it still comes across as the album that, when played live (still without guitars) it would still (I can’t think of a more sensible way to say it) “rock the joint”. You can hear this album’s influence is most great (and bad) electro-pop and even goth and industrial records. If you listen to the album ‘Rhythm of Youth’ by new-wave synth-dorks Men Without Hats (made 3 years after this) it sounds shockingly dated, not because of the sounds, but because of the songwriting. There’s not a speck of dust on ‘The Pleasure Principle’, not least because it sounds great, but because the songs are at once accessible and mystifying and about as indispensable as synthpop gets.

Key track: Metal

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