Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Liverpool (ZTT)
Melody Maker, October 25th 1986

By Simon Reynolds

"Relax" was perhaps the least sexy record in pop history. What could be more coldly, hideously chaste than the "orgasm" near the end, that ludicrously amplified simulation of ejaculation?

No, "Relax" was driven by something far stronger than sensuality--by an idea of sex. Sex as threat, sex as shock, sex as subversion. Like striptease, "Relax" was all about fear.

Hence the bombast, the brazen exposure. Like "Love Missile" and "High Priest of Love", everything goes into flouting/flaunting, nothing is held back, and so there's no teasing intermittence, no intimacy. "Relax" didn't give us flesh or delight, it reveled in the Word, in saying the unsayable.

That pyrotechnic stretch from "Relax" through "Two Tribes" to "The Power of Love", from disobedience to schmaltz, still stands as one of the superlative pop essays, a glorious charade. The combined brilliance of Morley and Horn managed somehow to overcome the manifest fallibility of their human software -- for Frankie were sadly and severely unsexy, devoid of charisma or presence, so small next to the MUSIC and the GESTURES.

Back then, we could ignore all this in the fracas. But the Frankie assault was meant to be apocalyptic in its perfection. How could there be a Day After, let alone anything as ignominious as a follow-up? Without that sense of turmoil or Event, there is only a pained awareness that there is nothing intrinsically fascinating about Holly and the lads, nothing voluptuous about his voice.

But the orgy must pick up where it left off. Back in Frankie's perfumed boudoir, the air hangs heavy like a dulling wine. Listening to this record I don't think of Nietzche or Huysmans, de Sade or Blake, I think of… Cityboy, "A Total Eclipse of the Heart", Arcadia, "She Loves Like Diamond", Mott… ""Warriors of the Wasteland" is like Iron Maiden trampling their way through the backdrops and setpieces of Lexicon of Love, "Kill the Pain" is like jobs trying on Dollar's stage costumes and bursting them at the seams.

The production is verbose rather than vivacious, no expense spared in the process of cramming every space with thousands of fiddly frills or dollops of mellotronic goo. "Maximum Joy" is the only mildly exhilarating fake here, the only time the wedding cake edifice of sound doesn't sag under its own soggy weight. Stephen Lipson directs with all the restraint of Cecil B. de Mille, making choirs of massed angels dance about the mix. He's Horn's protégé, (an) adept at taking the most wafer-thin "songs" and hysterically exaggerating them.

Every second of this record crassly simulates orgasm or its afterglow. But there's two reasons why Liverpool fails as an aphrodisiacal proposition. First, its airy, trebley sound, where every beat seems veiled in dry ice, lacks bottom, and so can't interfere with your biology. Second, like all ZTT music, it's overlit. How can there be arousal under these brazen spotlights?

The lyrics are the ripest gibberish, dotted with words like "sun", "moon", "oceans", "hell", "heaven", "sailboats of ice on desert sands", presumably to evoke the grandeur of Frankie's vision. Frankie would convince us they're possessed by a barbarian insatiability: there seems to be some kind of quest for a nebulous glory, a pagan existence of perpetual joy, perpetual motion.

At one point a Scouse voice muses "in the coming Age of Automation… Man might be forced to confront himself with the true spiritual problems of living." Frankie's solution to this quandary appears to be a mystical investment in pleasure. Like Prince, they are saying "party up, before we all die". Unlike Prince, though, they make the pleasure principle seem incredibly boring.

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