Sunday, June 26, 2016

Classic Album Review: Split Enz - True Colours (1980)

If the 1979 Frenzy album had seen Split Enz move away from their earlier prog/psych/glam-rock roots to a adopt a more pop-flavoured and accessible sound, then the True Colours album of 1980 finally provided the band with the sustained commercial breakthrough they so richly deserved.

Populated by three iconic singles – ‘I Got You’, ‘Poor Boy’, and ‘I Hope I Never’ – True Colours is a true landmark release in terms of New Zealand music, and it cemented Tim and Neil Finn’s burgeoning status as highly talented wordsmiths. Whatever else True Colours did, it also supplied the soundtrack to my final year of high school, and for that, it will always have a special resonance for me.

Firstly, let’s take a look at those singles:

‘I Got You’ was the first single off the album. Drenched with “new wave” sensibilities, combining a polished lyrical hook with spacey keyboards, it was a major smash on these shores and also went on to achieve minor hit status on the international stage.

‘I Hope I Never’ is often cited as Tim Finn’s finest moment, a haunting yet strangely compelling heart-on-sleeve love song of epic proportions. While it didn’t quite have the crossover appeal of ‘I Got You’ and charted only briefly at the time, ‘I Hope I Never’ has subsequently flowered over time to become one of the Enz’ best known songs.

However, for me, ‘Poor Boy’ stands-out as the album’s best track, and quite probably the highlight of the band’s long career. Three and a half minutes of pure pop bliss. All chiming synth and washes of guitar set to an electronic pulse, ‘Poor Boy’ tells the tale of a young man bemoaning his inability to connect with an imaginary long-distance lover (in this case, an inter-planetary one!). It works on several levels, not least the appeal it holds for any disenfranchised pubescent youth struggling to get to grips with romance, or dare I say it, for any young man toiling with the radically different mindset of the opposite sex. (Yes, I was briefly that young man) …

"My love is alien, I picked her up by chance, she speaks to me in ultra-high frequency. The radio band of gold, gonna listen til I grow old. What more can a poor boy do? …”

In these modern days of virtual relationships, social media connections, and widespread internet-dating, connecting with a long distance lover via radio or cellular frequency, or via cable, may not seem too far-fetched at all. But back in the pre-cyber days of 1980, back when Bill Gates was just another annoying speccy playground nerd, it seemed like a preposterous notion.

(And besides, be careful what you wish for …)

Those three tracks are easily the best of a pretty decent bunch, eleven tracks in all, including a couple of atmospheric instrumentals – ‘Double Happy’ and ‘The Choral Sea’.

The album opener ‘Shark Attack’ initially sets the tone nicely. An up-tempo track with a mix of breakneck percussion, quirky piano, and swirling guitars, it rather humorously explores the theme of bad relationships, and draws a parallel between matters of the heart and being mauled by a Great White. For all of the spruce applied, Split Enz clearly hadn’t lost their sense of humour. Or indeed, their sense of reality!

Themes of youthful alienation are all over True Colours, with tunes like ‘What’s The Matter With You’ (“you look down on everything we do”), ‘Missing Person’ (“I walk home the wrong way, hoping I’ll go astray”), and ‘Nobody Takes Me Seriously’ taking pride of place among the non-singles.

The two remaining tracks – ‘I Wouldn’t Dream Of It’ and ‘How Can I Resist Her’ – do veer dangerously in the direction of the dreaded “filler” tag, but overall, True Colours captures Split Enz at something close to a peak, some eight years and five albums into a prolific and generally much underrated career.

Split Enz were initially thought of as arty/student prog-rockers whose theatrical outfits and face paint made louder statements than their music, so after several years skirting around the fringes of orthodox pop, True Colours was the album which finally gave them widespread credibility based on their music alone.

Ultimately, when viewing the bigger picture, globally, Split Enz will just as likely be recalled as the band which launched the career of one of NZ’s best loved musical sons, Neil Finn – who joined older brother Tim in the band prior to the Frenzy album. Finn would, of course, go on to earn much international acclaim as the main man behind Crowded House. That link, however valid, does seem a touch unfair – for me, Split Enz stand as one of NZ music’s most innovative and influential bands, and much of their early Eighties output was way better than any of the conventional pop mush eventually churned out by the far more globally popular Crowded House.

You just need to listen to True Colours for proof of that.

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