Album Shuffle 001: The Human League, DARE

Virgin · 1981

For years I've avoided this album, for reasons that don't make a lot of sense when I try to figure out what they were. I've been a fan of the League's earliest work — specifically, the "Being Boiled" single and the Reproduction LP — for some time, but have always shied away from their more popular, mass-appeal work. This is a rare consistent position for me: take any British synth-pop group of the early to mid-80s, and my favorite work of theirs will be the earliest, least crowd-pleasing I can find. I'm even the kind of nerd who likes Gloria Jones' "Tainted Love" far better than Soft Cell's, which is all kinds of ridiculous.

So if there was one reason above all others for my keeping clear of Dare, it was "Don't You Want Me." I've never liked it, even when I was young and callow and liked everything I heard on 80s radio because it was so different from the 90s music I grew up on. But "Don't You Want Me" was so garish and obvious and show-tuney — in fact it first reminded me of nothing so much as Barry Manilow's "Copacabana," and follows the modern musical-theater formula of having songs do character and narrative work; it could easily be the lynchpin of a book musical even today, and I'm actually kind of surprised it's not.

So my expectation of Dare was that it would be stuffed with these kinds of over-obvious, overproduced songs, with the girls singing as much as Phil Oakey (for some reason in my head they sang in a generic brassy backup-vocalist way, even though that's clearly not how Susan Sulley sounds on "Don't You Want Me"), and that the gloomy sci-fi aesthetic of the early Human League would buried in glitz and jackhammer beats. (Of course, even "Don't You Want Me" sounds lo-fi by today's pop standards.)

So it was actually with a sense of disappointment that I listened to Dare and found that the first eight songs were almost exactly the same Human League I knew and loved, only with some female voices buried in the mix on some choruses. Far from obvious setpieces, the songs are largely abstractions, with a surprisingly large percentage of the lyrics in the imperative mood. A few dancefloor-friendly beats and basslines have crept in, but Phil Oakey isn't going to be mistaken for Simon Le Bon any time soon; his clipped and unemotional delivery remains as satisfyingly off-putting as ever.

In fact, by the time "Don't You Want Me" rolls around, buried at the end of the album, it's a welcome relief. The industrial monochrome of the previous nine tracks dissolves into something with a pulse and lungs, and human beings rather than social abstractions take the stage. The tossed-off, crowing "ohhhh"s in the chorus are a pop gift, a release from the austerity of all the foregoing. Dare, it turns out, is about a man mostly living inside his own head who only comes to life when he realizes that he's about to lose the only thing that matters: The Girl.

Now that's a book musical.

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