Back in 2006, I wrote a review of the first three Ultravox albums - the ones recorded in the John Foxx/Island Records/pre-fame period of their history. At the time, they'd just received a 30th anniversary re-release with bonus tracks added. This made me feel very old. Not as old, though, as when I discovered recently that later this month, they’re getting a 40th anniversary re-release as a box set called The Island Years. It’s virtually the same material, but with the bonus tracks shunted off to a separate disc and supplemented by a couple of previously unreleased BBC sessions (including the OGWT set mentioned in my review).
They won't get me this time, but only because they got me last time. Still, that’s how the music industry works these days – they find the stuff that hooked you as a teenager, and keep reselling it to you every few years. Last week saw another example of this, as ABC released an album of new songs called The Lexicon Of Love II, some 34 years after their world-conquering debut of almost the same name. From a distance, it seems like a grossly cynical attempt at prodding the nostalgia glands of people my age. Which is why we need to get in close.
Horn, Langan, Jeczalik and Dudley went on to perform similar magic for the likes of Malcolm McLaren and Frankie Goes To Hollywood, as well as making their own records under the name Art Of Noise. ABC, on the other hand, didn't like the idea of being permanently associated with what was becoming known as That Trevor Horn Sound. So for their followup album, Beauty Stab, they promoted Gary Langan to producer, ditched everyone else and went down a different path - more guitar-heavy, less at home to Mr Tune. This did not go down well. Since then, the band - personnel consisting of vocalist Martin Fry plus anyone else willing to stick around - have released albums sporadically to varying degrees of public indifference, while doing reasonably well touring the old hits on the nostalgia circuit. (I saw them supporting Robbie Williams in Cardiff back in 2001, and they were rather fabulous.)
Fry could never escape the shadow of that debut: which is presumably why he's chosen to embrace it openly. ABC's ninth album, The Lexicon Of Love II, is being marketed as a direct sequel to their first. It's got a smart sleeve that riffs off the design of the original (and as most purchasers will initially experience it as a tiny digital thumbnail, there's more fun to be had once you see the details at full size). It has an almost identical structure, beginning with a slow build from string section to full band, and ending with an orchestral reprise of the hit single. It has a crowd-pleasing backreference to its predecessor, with the spoken lines from Poison Arrow being repurposed in Kiss Me Goodbye. Most importantly, it reunites Fry with Anne Dudley, whose string arrangements were considered a defining part of the early ABC sound.
Or were they? As you listen to The Lexicon Of Love II, you can't help but compare it to The Lexicon Of Love, and try to analyse what Horn and co really brought to the table. Horn's productions always came with a huge side order of melodrama, and the lovelorn torment of Fry's early songs were able to trade off that brilliantly, allowing you to believe that "when the postman don't call on Valentine's Day" it's literally the worst thing in the world. And although everyone remembers all the sonic gimmicks on Horn's records, it's easy to miss that he'll tend to use them just once in a track and then come up with an entirely different one four bars later. There's only one BRRRRRAP-BAP-BAP-BAP-buhBAM in Poison Arrow, and that's why people go nuts over it. The use of an orchestra, though? ABC managed to get three singles into their career before they brought one into The Look Of Love. Again, it's a technique that's used sparingly throughout the first album, as just one weapon in a vast sonic arsenal.
Lexicon II is a sequel, though: and like any movie sequel, it takes the bits people remember the most and expands on those to the detriment of everything else. Most of our memories of Lexicon centre on the hits The Look Of Love and All Of My Heart, and those had big orchestral arrangements, so Lexicon II is smothered in them. Anne Dudley does a fine job with these - and it's fascinating to compare the two records and observe how much more lushly romantic the new arrangements are - but they weren't the be-all and end-all of ABC's sound.
The songs themselves are actually pretty good, which is a relief. Fry's ear for a melody, which seemed to desert him around the time of Beauty Stab, is back again. Beauty Stab was also the album which contained one of the most ridiculous lyrics in popular music history - "can't complain, mustn't grumble, help yourself to another piece of apple crumble" - and it's a pleasure to report that Lexicon II contains nothing of that standard. Having said that, there's an obvious technique to Fry's lyric writing, using accumulated wordplay as a replacement for a developed argument. The best example is the first album's Date Stamp, which starts from the premise of a relationship having a best-before date, and proceeds from there to hit you with a couple of dozen puns relating to the retail industry. It's something he still does today - witness the massed classical references of opening track The Flames Of Desire ("you came, you saw, you conquered me").
Co-produced by Fry and Gary Stevenson, Lexicon II is a loving recreation of eighties pop - and as the original ABC weren't averse to pastiche themselves, there's no problem with that at all. Some of the less orchestra-heavy tracks positively revel in their period synth settings, like the Prefab Sprout-style textures of Confessions Of A Fool. For the most part, though, there isn't the capacity for surprise that a Trevor Horn production would give you - with the exception of I Believe In Love, whose determination to change style every 45 seconds or so makes it paradoxically the track that sounds the least like any other ABC song, but simultaneously the one that's stylistically closest to the spirit of adventure of the earlier record.
It's also missing that sense of high drama that Lexicon had, but that's only to be expected. Fry was 24 years old when he made that debut, and he's 58 now. Lexicon is a perfect depiction of the angst a young man feels as he tries and fails to find love: Lexicon II is the sound of a older man who's settled down and is happy with where he's ended up. It's telling that the most melodramatically hyped-up track on the new record is The Singer Not The Song, which has nothing to do with relationships and everything to do with being the leader of a band. It's also telling that the most perfect song in this collection is a stately ballad called The Love Inside The Love, co-written with Anne Dudley. It's a track that's enhanced by its arrangement rather than riding on it, putting aside all the drama of failed relationships and luxuriating in how great they are when they work.
On a first casual listen, the thing that strikes you most about Lexicon II is how perfect a recreation it is of the old ABC sound, without sounding like a slavish copy. Subsequent re-listens take some of the sheen off that initial reaction, but there are still several songs here that can stand proud without the crutch of memories of the first album. The new record is simultaneously good enough to bear the name Lexicon Of Love, and also a lot better than it needed to be. Although you can't help but wonder if Fry's toying with the idea of Beauty Stab II next? For all its faults, it was a harder record both musically and politically (see Pick Of The Year 1983) than people were used to hearing then. Maybe its time has finally come. Just don't mention the apple crumble.