98: Men at Work – Who Can It Be Now? (1981)
Pop and paranoia seemed to go hand in hand in the ‘80s. “Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” was the nuclear apocalypse with shiny synths, Prince had his end-of-days funk and there was, of course, Thriller. But who knew a saxophone could soundtrack a panic attack so well? Based on lead singer Colin Hay’s tense experiences with bill collectors before Men at Work broke out, “Who Can It Be Now?” paints isolation and anxiety in the catchiest terms. The origin of the song may have come from Hay’s economic problems, but he breaks clearly from any money-focused issues, firmly planting “Who Can It Be Now?” as a study of breakdown. The narrator might claim “There’s nothing wrong with my state of mental health,” but every aspect of the song begs to differ. The sax lick is similar to the iconic line from Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street,” something that sticks deep into the reptilian brain. The starkness of the rest of the instruments only adds to the twitchiness, with the guitar briefly peeking out, only to be quickly ushered into darkness.
But it’s Hay’s performance that solidifies the anxiousness of “Who Can It Be Now?”. His lyrics, and therefore thoughts, seem displaced and fractured. The second verse in particular seems to swarm with grating energy. Hay goes from stopping his own breath in order to hide himself to claiming he’s doing fine with his “childhood friends.” We get no hint who or what those are before he agonizes and rushes back to the chorus. Despite how smooth the track is on the surface, every cranny is filled with buzzing fear. Anyone who deals with social anxiety can tell you that Hay’s portrayal is spot on, filled with amorphous worries combined with a desperate need to hide and to seem “fine.” And the music plays up those contrasting elements, creating an instant sing-along chorus documenting a frayed and worrying state of mind. – Nathan Stevens
97: The Cure – A Strange Day (1982)
Nestled onto the B-side of the Cure’s fourth LP, Pornography, “A Strange Day” stands as one of the record’s finest pieces. Its strengths? Robert Smith’s accessible yet enigmatic lyrics and the purity of his vocal performance both come to mind. Of course, Lol Tolhurst’s singular drumming style and Simon Gallup’s unmistakably brilliant bass lines provide more than mere rhythm. They serve as an emotional anchor within the song, allowing Smith room to soar in the track’s upper reaches. Smith is also a remarkably good guitarist. Here, the guitar leaps forth at critical moments to provide emotional acuity and strips of spare but impactful color on a largely naked canvas.
It’s not flooded with hooks the way that later numbers such as “Friday I’m In Love,” “Lovesong” or “Just Like Heaven” would boast, but it’s no less a pop song. For all the talk about Pornography being an impenetrable fortress of darkness or a deep dive into gothic depressiveness, Smith and co. still gave us a moving melody and familiar structure. They also delivered it all with an insistent beat that makes devotional listening the only viable option.
By all accounts the Cure was in rocky waters during the Pornography sessions. One can sense that in Gallup’s foreboding work on pieces such as “The Figurehead,” the vocalist’s anguished delivery there and on “Cold” and “The Hanging Garden” and in the dark haze that moves, foglike, across the aural spectrum as each track moves by. “A Strange Day” is a full-on pop item and relatively happy ditty in comparison, and yet, in the context of the album, it still carries that formidable character, that sense of inspired soul-searching and answer-seeking.
Pornography wasn’t met with particularly kind reviews upon its release and even in a sea of dark recordings (it was preceded by the barrel of laughs Faith in 1981), it can be a hard climb. All of that makes “A Strange Day” a most necessary arrival on the record. It also provides insight into Smith’s ability to track the emotional intensity and arc of an album with care. That would become one of his most reliable characteristics and one seen across the Cure discography. – Jedd Beaudoin