When an artist wears their influences on their sleeve, your response is likely to depend on what side of the shirt you are looking at. If it is front on: fresh new patterns and design, then delight will erupt and you won’t give a rat’s arse about what went before. Contrariwise, in the view from behind where the formative influences are artists you know well and revere mightily, you are much more likely to be dismissive of the young upstarts/copyists/plunderers (delete items not applicable).
I recall being quite irritated when I first encountered Gary Numan. Looking like a High School panto Bowie and sounding like second division Kraftwerk, there appeared little to enjoy and even less that would sustain interest. Sure 1979’s ‘Cars’ was sort of catchy in a creepy dissociated way, but doing robot racing-car driver improvisations was a bit pathetic. You looked sad too, like the mime-artist waiter in This is Spinal Tap.
And the music was just as thin and po-faced. Where the irony? Where the mystery? Numan’s voice was like a cheap Casio keyboard and the percussion sounded like someone tapping a plastic take-away container. What 1537 neatly described recently as Numan’s ‘android chic’ just didn’t bleep on my oscilloscope. Listening side-by-side with the previous year’s Man Machine showed both the minimalist genius of Kraftwerk and the limited palette of the acolyte. And Bowie in 1979? He released the edgy and under-rated Lodger. I am the DJ, I am what I play… Look back in anger… ‘Nuff said.
As you can tell, I was not convinced.
So how come I experienced such a buzz after purchasing the vinyl edition of Gary Numan’s most recent album Splinter: Songs from a Broken Mind?
The two-part answer is two re- words: re-master and reassessment.
When I picked up a CD of John Dent’s 1998 re-master of The Pleasure Principal  it was probably because it was cheap. Not a good reason, but a common one at Vinyl Connection (where vinyl is only half the story). The disc included some b-sides (interesting) and some contemporaneous live material (tasty). But what really surprised me was how the re-master brought to life the original analogue masters. The sound was cleaner, the bass deeper, the organic texture of the viola shone through with the rich resonance of polished wood.
Maybe it was this sonic spruce up or maybe just the passage of time, but I found myself immediately drawn into Gary Numan’s disengaged, insular world and up for reassessment.
The passivity, once distancing, evoked more recognition than irritation. Numan’s protagonist (himself?) only receives, never initiates. Contact is shunned, it is terrifying. And this is not speculation, it is announced:
Here in my car
I can only receive [Cars]
Please keep them away
Don’t let them touch me [Complex]
This is an artist paradoxically communicating his distance to a mass audience. An observer, not a participant. The spaces in the music illuminate the words. I could observe you all [Observer]
Programmed, repeated, assembled. There is nothing spontaneous; everything is mechanical, rehearsed.
All that we know is you and machinery [Engineers]
Here is someone so neurotically terrified by humanity that pleasure – even feeling – seems an impossible aspiration.
The sound of metal
I want to be
I could learn to be a man
Like you [Metal]
The reassessment? The Pleasure Principal is chilled but charged, retro but relevant. I enjoyed revisiting the Numan Technolife Laboratory (™). And when I finally got the irony of the title, you could say I almost warmed to Gary’s blue-white fluorescent world.
That was 1979.
What of 2013?
First glance at the cover suggests that things are not all sweetness and light. In fact they are muted sepia and deeply shadowed. In all the cover images – and there are six on the gatefold cover, inner sleeves and insert – Numan peers out with a sullen truculence that evokes a Dickensian villain. The future gothic tone is relentless. Me, smile? Fuck off, varlet.
Musically, Splinter opens with the churning and dramatic ‘I am dust’. Numan’s voice is a powerful wail, ‘waiting for you’. This is no party, more a post-apocalyptic wake. There is light and shade, though the light is sickly, polluted, illuminating nothing. This whispering death continues into ‘Here in the black’ with more industrial strength riffage. Two songs in and the dark mood is already feeling relentless… ‘your hopes just bleed away’. Being stuck in your Car is starting to sound like a summer holiday.
‘The Calling’ slows down even more, adding space for the most prominent electronic colours so far; synthesised strings add a mournful wash. The title track, ‘Splinter’, continues the brooding atmosphere, adding Middle Eastern cadences to both backing voices and instrumental textures. And so the first half ends with ‘Lost’, perhaps the thematic centrepiece of the album. It’s a relationship death ballad with a poignant melody and sparse, echoing accompaniment. The singer’s vulnerability is visible, though under threat from noise-chaos.
I will not cover the second LP in detail. The musical arrangements are similar, ranging from industrial goth to techno dancing (in the dark, of course). And this is, perhaps, the album’s weakness: just not quite enough variation, no grab-you-by-the-throat killer track. Side opener ‘Love hurt bleed’ comes close but you’re just not going to dance around the lounge bellowing ‘everything bleeds’. Well, I’m probably not going to anyway. It tends to upset the neighbours.
In lyrical terms, loneliness and confusion still dominate. As you might have gleaned, little here is soft and warm.
We were torn from our isolation
We were pulled from our path of least resistance [I am dust]
Once there was light but we were vain, lost in mind [We’re the unforgiven]
And although there are speculative stories tinted future-sepia (‘My Last Day’, ‘I am dust’), the centre has shifted from out there to in here. There has been depression, there has been re-emergence. But perhaps the emergence is into an empty space. The four-letter ‘L’ word most likely to occur in a Gary Numan song is not ‘love’ but ‘lost’.
Here in the black it comes for me
Here in the black I’m lost [Here in the black]
Do you think I’m lost? [Love hurt bleed]
This shuffling journey of confusion – emotional, relational, spiritual – is something that somehow points towards humanity: flawed, broken, faithless as it is. If it is delusional to seek a higher power, then what saves us from the echoing terror of aloneness? Numan does not offer an answer, nor any particular glimmer of hope. The final song, “My last day”, has the writer envisaging his own death. It is the grief of a dying parent: desperate, despairing, wrenchingly hopeless.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Perhaps the solace lies in Numan speaking our fears for us: chanting despairing words from a splintered mind, transmitting songs from the tortured wasteland within. An artist communicating his utter lost-ness with meticulous precision.
You can read a recent article and interview with Gary Numan at Malcolm Wyatt’s blog writewyattuk.wordpress.com
Splinter: Songs from a Broken Mind reached #20 on the UK Album Chart in late 2013.
If you like Splinter, you might well enjoy Secret Machines
The last couple of articles have been a trifle dark, haven’t they?
Next week, a very different take on mortality and the human condition via the wit and warmth of Loudon Wainwright III.