Sharps & Flats

A new Gary Numan retrospective fills in the gap between "Cars" and an era when one man and a keyboard actually became cool.

Published January 26, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Was Gary Numan ahead of his time, or simply a man no century could love? With his helmet hair, smooth metallic skin and affected use of synthesizers and transmogrified vocals, he always seemed like he would be more at home in a "Blade Runner" future than the late 1970s.

But in 1979 Gary Numan fell to Earth. For one unlikely moment, it seemed that the forward-looking Londoner articulated the paranoid claustrophobia of a modern, Cold War world. "Here in my car/I feel safest of all/I can lock all my doors/It's the only way to live/In cars," he sang robotically over a high-pitched synth phaser and a thunder clap, Rick Jamesian beat. "Cars," from what is usually considered Numan's finest record, "The Pleasure Principle," remains his only U.S. hit.

That fact alone may make "New Dreams for Old," a collection of music recorded between 1984 and 1998, seem an odd career choice for the year 2000. It was during those 14 years, after all, that most pop-music fans deleted his name from their memories, only to have it occasionally roused by a spin of "Cars" on the local New Wave radio show.

An optimist would say that this is precisely why Numan should spring this sneak-attack of a recording now. In the last two decades the charts have warmed to electronic sounds. The synthesizer no longer belongs to disco, that dinky, Fruit Roll-Up of pop. Sounds made with the Roland synth machines eventually popped up in rap, techno, electronica and a new style of R&B. With that in mind, Numan's objective with this release, it follows, would be two-fold: to prove that he's more important than a single single, and to get paid for doing so.

The early line has him settling for some measure of artistic vindication. "Metal '98," a remix of a song from "The Pleasure Principle," evinces a strange wedding of Siouxsie & the Banshees and the Beastie Boys. A handful of songs -- most notably "Tribal" -- recall the Sisters of Mercy's shadowy intensity. And the ghostly waft of synthetic sound billows on "Absolution" gives the song the churning melancholy of a Depeche Mode hit. "This is absolute/This is absolution," Numan chants on the chorus, one of several moments when he invokes the dark side of religion, a favorite subject picked up on by Depeche Mode and carried through today's pop by Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson.

With that lock on the dark early '80s, why didnt Numan enjoy flattering press clippings or some sort of financial success? It may be partly because the recording business has never been especially fond of solo synth whizzes. A band of keyboardists might make for a cult orchestra, but before the era of Moby and Fatboy Slim, one twitchy guy programming a keyboard came off as geeky and pathetic. Consider Howard Jones, Thomas Dolby and Numan vs. Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys and Kraftwerk. It's not an entirely solid theory. There's a chance that the talented yet coldly unreal Numan actually peaked on "The Pleasure Principle," but it's only hinted at on this serviceable collection. Why else would he sneak a live version of "Cars" from a 1984 concert onto the new record?

By Mac Montandon

Mac Montandon is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore.

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