ABC – The Lexicon Of Love | 1982 – 4
What more can be said about this record except that it’s one of the most deliberate, careful, and lovingly overmade records ever released in the pre-computer era. After the tepid “Tears Are Not Enough” single hit the charts, a dissatisfied Martin Fry found his ears drawn to the quartet of singles that Trevor Horn made for the pre-fab duo Dollar and he then made a bee line for the nascent synth-popper turned producer. For his part Horn and his manager/wife Jill Sinclair had decided that production and not performance was where his bread was buttered and the timing for a project like this was ripe.
The raw material of the band was capable. This was a plus. Horn found that Mark White was an able guitarist, David Palmer was accomplished on drums, and Stephen Singleton added saxophone to the mix. Better, Fry’s songs were a near concept album in the waiting where the transmissions of his recently broken heart found voice in a brace of songs turning his recent breakup into musical lemonade. This would be the project to make his name, but Horn told the band that it would be made his way. Outsiders would be brought in to enhance the recording. The talent that would be the basis of the forthcoming ZTT Theam would add their considerable contribution to the mix: J.J. Jeczalik/Fairlight, Louis Jardim/Percussion, and Anne Dudley/Keyboards + orchestration. Horn himself tells the tale.
“They first played ‘Poison Arrow’ like a sort of live band in RAK Studios, and they played it quite well because they were pretty good musicians, so we had a recording of them and I said ‘Is that what you want, or do you want it better?’ And Martin Fry said ‘I want it as good as it can possibly be.’ And I said ‘If you want it as good as it can possibly be we’ll have to start again. And this is what I propose we do… “
What makes this album pop are the fantastic arrangements that never let up. Horn believed that the key to a successful pop song was a tune where no verse was exactly the same as the one preceding it. Songs should unfold like a dazzling origami flower with inventive gestures and filigree overflowing through time as the song played out. Some of the best moments on this record, that stick out in my mind 29 years later, are the fadeouts, which were most likely not scored by Fry and the band on paper.
The singles are well known. The band and team recut their debut single, “Tears Are Not Enough” to devastating effect. They should/could have issued it again as a fifth single and the market would have eaten it up at that point. There is almost no comparison between this track and the band’s debut 45. Sure, the notes and lyrics are in the right places, but the level of unearthly polish invested in the album version causes my mind to freeze up. Just the percussion/harpsichord breakdown for the middle eight is an astonishing bit of juxtaposition/song construction.
One song, more than any other on this album has risen in my esteem considerably in recent years. It was not a particular favorite at the time the album was issued but it’s now the highlight of the album for me. “All Of My Heart” is an incredible eighties stab at a classic love lost ballad in the Walker Brothers/Gene Pitney stripe. The lyrics and arrangement flow together like ice cream and dulce de léche. After the climax of the song, which has been built up to by one lyrical and instrumental plateau after another; the instrumental coda is perhaps the finest moment on the record as Anne Dudley’s strings, Brad Lang’s bass and Singleton’s saxophone take the song out on a brilliant morning-after note. It sounds like classic songcraft because it is.
As for the rest of the album, you already know what I think of “Poison Arrow” from the previous entry. It’s truly an Olympian construction. What’s telling are that the album tracks are the furthest thing from filler. The opening “Show Me” features incredible syncopation that’s seriously topped as if it were child’s play with the syncopated middle eight of “Valentines Day” which twins Fry’s staccato vocal exhortations with Fairlight brass stabs of incredible power. “Date Stamp” is yet another possible single cast adrift on an album that is most definitely all killer/no filler. The 2004 2xCD deluxe remaster of this title featured a track dropped from the running order [“Surrender”] but when you listen to this album, it’s sequenced and segued so carefully for maximum musical and emotional impact, that the order and placement of material in the flow was obviously crucial. Incredibly so.
The detail that’s given to the totality is mesmerizing. Fry wrote an operetta after a woman dumped him and Horn made the bittersweet dream hyperreal. One anecdote that slays me was that Horn actually got the woman who stabbed Fry’s heart to say the words “goodbye” on the wistful “The Look Of Love.” That’s genius! Capping it all off were Fry’s own arch period pastiche liner notes on the singles sleeves that were 1982 by way of 1962. Not content to merely appropriate Tommy Steele’s gold lame suit, Fry wanted the whole package and wrapped the records in tongue-in-cheek po-mo detail that was both studied and inspired.
The end result is an album that may not be the best ABC album [for my ears, any way] but one that’s undeniably an achievement that would deter all but the strongest constitutions from attempting to match or better it. Quite simply, there is so much concentrated talent at work on this album, all masterfully coordinated by producer Horn that the odds of hearing its like again, especially in these financially diminished times, is all but nil. So raise your glasses to the team of ABC and Trevor Horn for an accomplishment that will undoubtedly stand as a singular achievement. Since the resulting album made ABC a household name the world over [mission accomplished], all ears were cocked, awaiting their next opus. What got delivered was the least likely response by the band.
Next: That difficult second album to end all difficult second albums…