In many ways, early British electronic music was a response to a postwar Europe, particularly postwar England, which had become blighted with dystopian, Ballardian urban landscapes. The music’s glacial remoteness merely reflected back the sense of alienation wrought by depressing scenes of ominous tower blocks and rotting factories. Sheffield, with its menacing steel plants, was a particularly effective incubator for just such a new kind of industrial-age sound.
Seminal Sheffield synth act The Human League released two early albums that perfectly captured that sense of isolation and proximity to clanking machinery. They sold, but not all that much. Aspirational and frustrated, singer Phil Oakey jettisoned the more solemn half of the band (they would go on to become Heaven 17), brought in two foxy young scenester girls, and shortly after scored one of the biggest-ever worldwide hits in the form of “Don’t You Want Me Baby.” Legendary journalist Paul Morley quickly branded it as “New Pop”: futuristic, optimistic, and unashamedly ambitious. Their chart success would continue on through the 1980’s.
Author Simon Reynolds had written extensively on the exhilarating modernism of nascent Human League in his 2007 book Rip It Up And Start Again. But in his latest tome, Retromania, he argues that all culture now is simply repetition and pastiche. In other words, postmodernism has replaced modernism.
Indeed, a generation later, Ladytron emerged from another blighted Northern city, Liverpool, as a near-perfect revival of the League’s ethos. Also composed of equal measures male and female chromosomes, they were fearsomely sexy while also eliciting a sort of cold, Mitteleuropa detachment. They played icy, Teutonic synth pop but with massive hooks, and their lyrics were decidedly melancholy, but never actually bleak.
Ladytron perfectly captured that moment when modernism edged into postmodernism. They dressed a bit like Kraftwerk, they sounded not unlike Human League or Visage, and they even managed to re-contextualize pre-Millennial ennui for the post-Millennium. They were…”Renew” Pop.
Fitting, then, that The Human League and Ladytron, their most perfectly realized progeny, both have new releases arriving as summer turns to fall, almost as if to qualify Reynolds’ entire thesis.
The latter’s new and very modern-titled album, Gravity the Seducer (to be released on Nettwerk September 12), finds Ladytron returning to their electro-pop essence after various flirtations with psychedelia and other such diversions. It’s Ladytron doing Ladytron, and it’s a glorious triumph of style and aesthetics. Indeed, “White Gold” is like the soundtrack to trains speeding across unnamed stretches of European desolation, and “Moon Palace” tells of a “postcard from a distant dream” over the type of beautifully eerie soundscape once the province of Ultravox and Gary Numan. Surely Numan would kill to have written the ethereally haunting “Transparent Days.” Gravity is possibly the most fearless and fully realized album of Ladytron’s career.
The League’s newest on Wall Of Sound (digital release this week, physical 8/23), Credo, is just what the title says it is: a manifesto of glossy, mod pop music to soundtrack these glossy, high-tech times. “Night People” and “Privilege” are both muscular, almost militaristic electro stormers, while the thumping “Single Minded” is a throwback to the unique Human League ability to sound blithe and ominous at the same time.
Better still, “Sky” and the Giorgio Moroder-esque “Electric Shock” are absolutely perfect modernistic pop songs, and in a way sound like Human League doing Ladytron doing Human League.
On Credo’s closing track, “When The Stars Start To Shine”, the League implores the listener optimistically to, “Hold your head up / We see a new horizon”. One guesses they get the irony.
Photo by Spiros Politis