“Of all the people in the world, why would you choose me?”
It is with these rather pessimistic lyrics that Howard Jones opens his ninth official studio album, Transform.
Despite its title, however, this album is less of a ‘transformation’ and more of a ‘restoration’ of Jones’ early sound- and considering this was what brought him to prominence in the UK in the first place, this ‘restoration’ of sorts is certainly a welcome one.
Full-to-bursting with Howard’s trademark uplifting melodies and contemplative lyrics, the album harks back to that much-loved ‘80s output both instrumentally (Transform is very much synth-dominated) and in terms of overall feel, but still succeeds in developing the sound of his previous full-length studio album (the mellower, strings-based Ordinary Heroes from 2009). Three of the tracks that can be found on Transform also feature the American producer BT, a pioneer of trance music who has worked in the past with a range of artists including Madonna, Mike Oldfield, Seal and Diana Ross.
In fact, one of the first things you notice about the way the synths are used on this record is just how much of an atmosphere they create- and considering a sense of ‘atmosphere’ tends to be a primary feature of trance music, this may well be due to BT’s presence on the album, or perhaps simply due to his possible influence on Jones as an artist.
One thing that’s for sure is that this lends the tracks a certain subtlety which they might not have had otherwise. Once a certain level is reached, the instrumentation generally remains on that particular level, relying more on the undercurrent of synths and sound effects to keep the songs moving forward, as opposed to drops or a constant variation of elements or overall character.
This results in tracks that are enjoyable to listen to, yet not so much that they’re over the top or develop into ‘guilty pleasures’, and although there is the odd moment where the listener might begin to wonder if some more varied textures or soundscapes might not have gone amiss in certain places, on the whole there is a nice balance between a lushness of grandiose keyboard sounds, and a fragility of more delicate synths.
‘The One To Love You’- Transform‘s opening track- is a perfect example of this, with rich layers of vocal effects and a soaring chorus melody offset by bright, well-placed arpeggiation, whilst second track ‘Take Us Higher’ does just that, delivering a sufficiently theatrical intro that leads nicely into a crisp, crunchy slice of dance pop.
One theme that starts to creep into the album more as it progresses is one that perhaps hasn’t been as prominent in some of Jones’s earlier releases; tracks like ‘Beating Mr Neg’, ‘Tin Man Song’ and the album’s title track in particular deliver some intriguing sci-fi based concepts (think robotics, the discovery of new planets and ‘starships’) that provide a vehicle for a melodically-strong songwriting style which in many ways is typical of Jones, but that also allow deeper exploration into the more ‘fantastical’ side of his imagination.
More importantly perhaps, the way this theme starts to crop up as one listens to this album means it quickly becomes obvious there is an overall feeling of coherence- a necessity for an album even to be named as such, one might argue, but not something that is achieved as frequently or as effectively as artists might like. There is a fine line between the ‘cohesive’ and the ‘comparable’ in terms of the different tracks on one album, and Transform walks it notably well, with the songs sporting a flow and continuity in relation to each other, yet also sufficient individuality that may surprise those who begin their listen with trepidation.
On the other hand, the album does end on rather an odd note in the near-pastiche form of ‘Stay With Me’, a funky but lightweight track. It brings the proceedings to a rather abrupt close and feels as though it should be followed by something deeper or more meaningful that sums up the album as a whole- which is in fact quite thought-provoking in places.
This does, however, make a nice change from the cliché of ending the album with a slow-burning, sparse ballad written solely as an attempt to leave listeners teary-eyed, and although this doesn’t completely excuse the slightly unsatisfactory end with which ‘Stay With Me’ leaves us, it does prove that Jones still has it in him to take risks and go beyond what is ‘expected’ of him as a synth pop artist.
And so it is fair to say that the pessimism of those opening lyrics- “Of all the people in the world/why would you choose me?” – is rather misleading; the album that follows them is far from pessimistic, and in fact serves predominantly as a joyful reminder why Howard Jones’s music- and indeed, synth pop in its rawest form – still holds an endearing honesty and simplicity that is so easy for fans old and new to appreciate.
Transform is due to be released on 10th May, with a tour to support the album set to begin on May 23rd.
Imogen also maintains her own music blog at The Sound Of The Crowd which has a strong emphasis on the classic 1980s period.