In the last few years, the music world has seen comebacks by a number of bands and artists often categorized, not terribly accurately, as “80’s” music. The covers a varied lists of acts like The B-52’s, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Gang of Four, Thomas Dolby, and even DEVO. They’ve attempted to remake their mark alongside era-defying stalwarts like Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys and (sigh) Duran Duran. Now, synthpop pioneers The Human League are giving it a try. It’s been a decade since their last album, the critically well-received, but dated Secrets, and Credo shows that the Sheffield trio still have something that so many modern acts lack—and I’m not just talking about a pair of female vocalists.
In short, Credo is the best album The Human League has done since 1981’s Dare, though in fairness, it doesn’t take much to surpass most of what they did after. While the Fascination! EP was excellent, the albums Hysteria, Crash, and Romantic? sounded dated the moment they came out of the studio, and combined with subpar songwriting showed the League was just thrashing out dreck that in a quest to strike gold like Dare had. Of these three albums, Hysteria is probably the best; “The Lebanon” is a fine song, albeit with clunky lyrics, but barely sounds like the same band that put out electronic masterworks like “The Sound of the Crowd” and “Love Action (I Believe in Love)”. The less said about the dull, Adult Contemporary junk on the other two albums, the better. (“Heart Like a Wheel”? Seriously?) At least Octopus and Secrets, for their dated sound at least had songwriting on par with the band’s glory days. 1
I harp on a lot about the sound of the previous albums, because it’s crucial to understanding what makes Credo so captivating. Dare is timeless; nobody has made a record that sounds quite like it. Credo, for its modern production, hits some of the same spots that Dare does. It’s a hybrid of the vintage sounds of Dare with modern polish and shine–and a little bit of auto-tune. Some tracks on the second half of the record even flirt with the harder-edged, Kraftwerk influenced sounds of the League’s first two records, Reproduction and Travelogue. 2 The best way to compare how Credo sounds to, say, Secrets or Octopus, is that those albums sound like fairly generic electronic albums of the period with Human League style vocals, but Credo sounds like The Human League, right out of the gate. That’s not to say Credo sounds like Dare–Credo’s focus goes straight to the bottom end, with a lot of deep, rich bass for dancing, while Dare often focused on soaring lead synthesizer melodies. However, something about the composition, the timbres of the synths, and that good old Human League triple vocals just makes the album feel like slipping on a comfortable shirt. I can’t say that about Secrets.
The first song, “Never Let Me Go,” is Human League-by-numbers, with lyrics that are eerily reminiscent of Dare’s “Love Action (I Believe in Love)”, but it doesn’t come out sounding like a rehash. The sound is a bit more contemporary than the rest of the album, but as the second of the pair of leadoff singles, it’s an excellent choice. I’m also partial to the tinny radio-effect applied to Philip’s wordless opening vocals, leading into the fullness of the song once Susan begins to sing. However, it’s merely a prelude to the best song on this disc: “Night People,” a “Sound of the Crowd”-esque ode to late-night partying dosed with heavy Giorgio Moroder sequenced and arpeggiated bass. “Night People” holds up to anything else the League has done, and when Joanne Catherall takes the lead vocal about three minutes in, it’s easy to believe the old magic that made their early work so captivating is back to stay.
While the rest of Credo doesn’t quite live up to the double-shot of lead off excellence, the rest of the first half is still solid, with four songs about bad romances–a common theme among the League’s subject matter. This is not a complaint because they do it so well, both on Dare and on Credo. 3 “Sky” is probably the strongest of these three songs, a tale of bouncing back from a failed romance alternating between melancholy and exuberance in a way that could only sound honest coming from Philip Oakey. “Into the Night” is a bit weak, but works well as a segue into “Egomaniac”, which is a great dance tune, but a bit uneven. It’s “Single Minded” that hits the end of the first half the record on a high note… right before the album slips into slightly forgettable territory. If the first six tracks were Dare quality, the rest are Secrets quality–decent enough, but need something push them over the edge. “Privilege” is the exception, however, sounding like a Secrets B-side that ended up on the album by mistake. Still a misstep like that on an band’s first album in a decade isn’t unusual and it’s at least listenable enough. Finally, “When the Stars Start to Shine” closes the album on a decent, if clichéd note.
Perhaps it’s not fair to compare an album like Credo to Dare, because there really is no way that it will live up to its predecessor. Dare was a genre-codifying masterwork, made all the more impressive by being a last-ditch attempt to make a new band under an old name work and be commercially successful. Credo on the other hand, is the work of artists with decades of experience under their belts, and it shows. The Human League have to prove their relevance in a world that’s taken their ball and ran with it, deflated it by force, patched the hole, and re-inflated it. Going with that standard, that they’ve even made an album that one can compare with Dare on even footing is an achievement. Certainly, only one of their contemporaries who have made comeback albums that can hold up to that sort of comparison. 4
Harsh criticism of the second half aside, Credo is essential. If you like Dare, you will like Credo. If you like synthpop in general, you will like Credo. If you like good electronic dance music with a pop sensibility, you will like Credo. If you miss the music of 1980s or if you missed out on the music of the 1980s, you should give Credo a shot. It’s a rare act that can bounce back and create an album that both echoes their timeless greatness and stands toe-to-toe with what’s new in the world. The Human League deserve credit for that, at the very least.
Octopus does have, to its credit, the excellent instrumental “John Cleese; Is He Funny?” which is not only the best title for a synthpop song, but also a great rhetorical question. He is. As for the song-writing problems, I’m happy to blame them on the involvement of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, professional 80s dreck producers. ?
If you’re not familiar with the early works of The Human League, these albums may as well be considered to be by a totally different band. Well, they were, actually. The only member to be with The Human League from the beginning is singer, Philip Oakey. The girls didn’t join up until Dare, while Jo Callis and Martyn Ware went off to start Heaven 17. ?
And they were at it before that Lady Gaga person. Everything old is new, huh? ?
The only one that comes to mind is DEVO’s Something for Everybody which is not only the best album they’ve done since 1982’s Oh, No! It’s DEVO, but even rivals the landmark Freedom of Choice at times. I, however, admit serious bias on this point, which is why I never have given the disc a formal review. ?