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Thursday, May 25, 2006

Gary Numan & Tubeway Army's Replicas

Haven't posted in a while, mainly because my musical universe seems to have narrowed to a single album which has matched my mood perfectly for a couple of weeks now. I didn't want to post "I only listen to Gary Numan's 'Replicas'," because that seems like a silly thing to admit. But here goes: I only listen to Gary Numan's 1979 album Replicas. Someday soon I hope to move on, but for now, something about Numan's dreary, paranoid vision of a dystopian future where machines have taken over and there remains no trace of human tenderness really speaks to me.

It's pretty well accepted that 'Replicas' is Numan's best album (though I'm also quite fond of his self-titled 1978 debut Tubeway Army). The album opens with a pair Numan classics, Me! I Disconnect From You and Are 'Friends' Electric?, both extremely catchy for songs about alienation and loneliness. Then there is the oft-covered masterpiece Down In The Park, a bleak picture of a future where humans are kept down in the park while the machines play "kill-by-numbers". The whole album oozes with grim, Philip K. Dick-style imagery, suggesting an all-too-human broken heart lurking at the center of a world composed of circuits, gears, metal, and violence.

'Replicas' also stands at the beginning of a decade of synthpop (and at the end of another decade of proto-synthpop). To my ear, Numan's work here provides a good bridge between the likes of 70s synthesizer masters like Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder, and the flood of synthesizer bands that came in the 80s. Numan infused his songs with a hooky, almost postpunk sensibility that give these cold songs about machines a surprisingly rock n' roll feel. Even moreso than bands like The Human League or The The, he made the synthesizer work in a rock band setting, not as some kind of "wow" effect (like certain prog rock bands from the 70s, perhaps) but as an integral, natural part of the band.

But without Numan's unique singing voice and deliberate phrasing, that band would never have taken off. His voice sounds so alien, as if there were two or three of him singing at once, slightly detuned. He also has a gift for sculpting a sticky, deceptively simple melodic phrase in his singing, based around the hook of the song but complimenting it by adding exactly the right amount of tension through dissonance and mirroring.

Numan's career has fallen off some in the intervening decades, but he is still an amazing presence on stage. I saw him perform several years ago and he blew me away, which renewed my interest in the guy. Now I will hear him in a different way anew, having had this one record on such heavy rotation for weeks.

Didn't have much luck finding Numan clips online, but you can hear a handful of his songs at Myspace, and there is a ton of concert footage over at YouTube.


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