The Human League: Octopus UK CD 
- Tell Me When
- These Are The Days
- One Man In My Heart
- Filling Up With Heaven
- Housefull Of Nothing
- John Cleese; Is He Funny?
- Never Again
- Cruel Young Lover
The Human League just seemed to lose their footing after hitting the top with “Dare!” in the 80s/90s. The slow-motion train wreck that was “Hysteria” was [far] surpassed by the nearly worthless “Romantic?” and honestly, I actually forgot “Crash” [an album I will never own] until I just started typing this sentence! Needless to say, the days of fervently buying each Human League release was long behind me when “Octopus” came out in early 1995. I paid it no mind until my friend Ty, a big League fan, actually sent me a copy with a sticky note on it saying only “prepare to be impressed.” Well okay then! It got a shot.
The lead off hit single returned the band [rightly] to the UK top 10 and the sound here was very contemporary but with taste. It was definitely post-house “electronic” music. What we were about to start referring to as “electronica” in the 90s but to my ears it sounded like the product of an early digital audio workstation environment. This sounds like music constructed from loops to me. To its credit, Ian Stanley [ex-Tears For Fears] took the lightest of touches with the paradigm. What I can’t fail to notice is how the music bed for this music seemed to be as clean and minimal as possible.
The “synths” burbled and popped rhythmically underneath it all in the most modest way possible. The arrangements of the accompaniment were spartan. Where the melody payload was carried on this album was in the vocals. And unlike my memories of “Hysteria” or “Romantic?” I was noticing that here was an instance where Susan and Joanne were almost at parity with Phil for carrying the vocal burdens. “The girls®” weren’t just adding scant bits of sonic icing. They were almost on equal footing with Phil in getting the songs across. Go back an listen to “Dare!” They were an occasional spice used in the mix. Here they were a big part of the main course. It also didn’t hurt that “Tell Me When” was a fantastic single. Light, clean, and airy, it really went places. Phil’s lyrics were relatively straightforward and the vocal harmonies were strong. It managed the not inconsiderable feat of being a strong song, sounding contemporary, and not descending into rave fodder. This was actual pop music, not dance porn.
The next song was almost as good; a great sign that maybe Ty was right. “These Are The Days” was an intriguing song attacking nostalgic views as retrograde. Quite an interesting and unique point of view for a song to have. And one which was valid at least until the 21st century. Now, I’m not so sure. The music bed began on the same light note as “Tell Me When” but allowed for some drama when orchestral samples brought a bit of heaviness to the song at the middle eight.
Suzanne Sulley got a rare turn at the spotlight for lead vocals on the single “One Man In My Heart” which was the second hit [UK #13] from the album. This one really hit the “electronic ABBA®” target full on as the winsome melodies supported the ode to monogamy. The ballad “Words” was the most minimal sounding thing here with a music bed that seemed to these ears like a throwback to The Human League’s [brilliant] cover of “You Lost That Loving Feeling” all the way back on their debut album from 1979. The modest, crystalline backing track here didn’t have the same contrast without Phil and Martyn going into the red with the vocals.
The third single didn’t do as well, but ”Filling Up With Heaven” had a fuller, rococo sound featuring lots of sonic filigree as opposed to the more minimal backing elsewhere. Then “Housefull Of Nothing” was a darker, embittered track that shook up the vibe and served to foreshadow the album’s last song. Phil really worked up a head of steam with the song, which seemed to be an invective against Thatcherism.
“John Cleese, Is He Funny?” was an instrumental that felt like a B-side that had wandered into the collection of songs. In fact, it was used as a B-side to the “Filling Up With Heaven” single. It felt a bit out of place with the production that depended on the vocals for melodic interest with the music being sleek and minimal. This felt like a throwback to “Romantic?” by contrast. The final song reached an intense peak to finish out the somewhat chilled program. “Cruel Young Lover” was all dark, brooding intensity and clipped, diamond sharp synth loops. The track topped out at almost seven minutes, but earned every one of them.
So I had to admit that Ty was right. This was a huge step forward for the often hapless Human League who had always struggled to follow up the “Dare!” phenomenon. I enjoyed this album then and it still works just fine for me. It’s a great modern [read: 25 year old] Human League album that really pulled the band’s fat out of the fire as they had been dropped from Virgin after the “Romantic?” album in 1990. Their newfound viability may have resulted in a gold album and two hit singles at home, but fate conspired to keep the band down anyway as new label East-West went through a big shakeup and they dropped all sorts of artists. Including The Human League who had done pretty well. Their next move would take six more years but that’s a tale for another day.
– 30 –