By the early 90s, ABC had ceased to exist, and based on the return of the last two albums they released in 1989 and 1991, I was okay having them go away. After an auspicious start, they clearly ran out of steam chasing the house music rabbit on their final two releases. Even their unobjectionable fourth “Alphabet City” album seemed to be double dipping back to the well from which they had sprung, godlike, in 1982 with diminishing returns. So it was with no expectations that I was greeted with a buzz on the Associates mailing list in 1997 with talk of a new ABC album. The forum members seemed split with some liking it and referencing the much reviled [though loved by me] “Beauty Stab” with others dismissing it with negative comparisons to “Lexicon.” Well, that certainly caught my eye. I would be very interested in hearing such an album from ABC. So I looked for it.
And looked for it. And looked for it. During a trip to Ohio, I found a single from it, but the actual album was invisible in the marketplace. Eventually, I realized that I should just give up looking. In 1997, there were no throngs awaiting Martin Fry’s latest return from oblivion opus, save for me and a few die-hards. Then, as I was perusing some used stock in a CD Warehouse with a couple of friends in 1999, Charles held “Skyscraping” aloft and asked “do you have this?” Sensing it was naively being offered to me, I deftly snatched it from his hands.
First of all, this album cannot be characterized as a Martin Fry solo album. Without Mark White to bounce ideas off of, he found a much more productive pairing in the local Sheffield band Honeyroot, better known to you as Heaven 17’s Glenn Gregory and Keith Lowndes. Almost all of the material was written between the three of them with Lowndes performing the vast bulk of the music, save for occasional sax or the odd [real] three-piece string section. Fry had stated that he wanted to make an album that better reflected his influences so this album touches on the usual classics: Roxy Music, David Bowie and even The Sex Pistols. And it does this organically and legitimately. There’s world of difference between “Beauty Stab’s” ham-fisted [but lovable] appropriation of the “Flesh + Blood” rhythm section to play of re-writes of that Roxy Music album’s title cut [“If I Ever Thought That You’d Be Lonely”] and the material at work here. Yes, the album touches on rock as did “Beauty Stab” but the attempt is less gauche and more fully realized here. In 1982, Fry was clearly overreaching. Fifteen years later, the results he’s achieving are as natural as breathing. Simply put, this is a man at the top of his form.
The lovely acoustic ballad “Stranger Things” opens the program after a queer, dissonant electronic intro, as a full-blown ray of sunshine clearing the stormclouds away. The core band of Lowndes and Gregory [who plays keys on several tracks] are abetted here by a string section and some backing vocalists. Fry’s singing is delicate and emotional and there’s none of the campiness he had fallen prey to in the past. This is followed by “Ask A Thousand Times” which packs a punch similar to mid-period Roxy Music ca. “Stranded.” In fact, the band cleverly add a middle eight atonal synth solo such as Eno might have provided on the first two Roxy Music albums, and it manages to reach for the “what if Eno never left” ideal rather successfully. In much the same fashion, the sax playing on this cut begins fairly disciplined as Andy MacKay was in 1975, but as the song progresses, the playing gets looser and wilder in a way that MacKay hadn’t done for a couple of years by the time of “Siren.” And all of this delightful post-modern realization of the various timelines is wrapped around a song that has plenty of laurels to rest on. It would sound great no matter how it were arranged.
The title track shifts gears for another ballad, this time one of widescreen expansiveness. Back in 1987, ABC fired off a love letter to Smokey Robinson that was one of their biggest hits. In contrast, “Skyscraping” is a song that Robinson himself should have killed for. He hadn’t had material this good in almost 30 years! It begins as a delicate soul ballad that reaches for the stars on the luminous chorus where the strings join in in a rapturous glissando before Fry brings it home to jesus. This track was released as a single and it’s a crying shame that it didn’t go top five worldwide, as it’s that good. This is indisputably the best song ABC ever produced. While a track like “All Of My Heart” is a [very] careful simulacrum of a classic pop song given the benefit of a small army of steely-eyed, flat-bellied professionals giving it their all, “Skyscraping” just is a stellar example of pop music at it’s transcendent finest – period! Deconstructionist manipulations of signifiers are left behind for sheer mastery of form and content.
This is an impeccably programmed and paced album with quieter or more languid numbers rubbing shoulders with something a little more raucous for a very rewarding flow. I could gush on every number here but it would be as churlish as deciding exactly which petal of the lotus blossom were more perfect. Suffice to say that rocking tracks like the single “Rolling Sevens” are suffused with a magnificent bite and uniformly great performances by the players.
Elsewhere, the exhilarating “Love Is It’s Own Reward” tops even that song while proffering an astonishing chimera that answers the question “what if The Sex Pistols and Roxy Music were put in a blender.” The amazing track is hung on a close cousin of the famous descending guitar riff from “Holidays In The Sun” as integrated with verve of “Prairie Rose.” The head-first energy simply buzzes right off of this track and charges me up every time I hear it. Capping it off are Fry’s deft lyrics that tumble effortlessly from his pen with glories such as these:
“Walking down main street
With cupid and psyche
Whom should we meet
But sweet aphrodite
I fall to my knees
And praise the almighty”
Earlier on the tune, Fry had the panache to roll his “r” on the phrase “running on empty.” Oh, I am not worthy!
None of the songs are half-hearted on this album. None of these songs are labored. That is perhaps its greatest strength. Each track is packed with passion, or in the case of the startling ambient chill out tune, “Light Years,” totally bereft. This track is like nothing else in the ABC canon, and probably reflects the writing influence of Lowndes and Gregory, who would go on to work in the ambient genre following this album as Honeyroot. The expansive, nearly seven minute track recalls the similarly pitched “2000 Light Years From Home” by the Rolling Stones, only much more glacial in pacing and delivery.
This album managed to get me rapturously interested in whatever Martin Fry was doing in this latest phase of his career. He had managed to make after a long layoff, precisely the album I didn’t know I dearly wanted from him, and really, what more can a fan ask for? That it didn’t sell by the bucketload is a tragedy of commerce, but on the artistic front, Fry had nothing to worry about. He had released with the not inconsiderable help of Gregory and Lowndes, what I consider the best album of his career but would soon be embarking on the treadmill of nostalgia, ironically while at the apex of his creative powers. Nearly twenty years on, to earn an income, ABC would next become primarily a live act on the nostalgia circuit.
Next: You didn’t buy the album, now see the tour…