Modern English deserve a legacy beyond one song
The 1980s was an era in which disposable pop became de rigueur in America in a way that it arguably hadn’t been since before the rise of the Beatles. As such, there were tons of bands that could be classified as one-hit wonders, artists who rose quickly thanks to radio and MTV, only to be forgotten just as rapidly as they had been introduced. Among British groups, especially, one came across two distinct kinds of surprise hitmakers: those who leveraged their early success as a way to go off on as many weird artistic tangents as they wanted, and those who were always a little off-beat to begin with who hit the charts through some form of bizarre alchemy. Modern English, the Colchester-based quintet who scored a Hot 100 hit with “I Melt with You,” fall solidly into the latter category. Though most of the world remembers them for their throwback earworm of a hit, their first two albums, Mesh and Lace and After the Snow, portray a starkly different band that fit in with an alternate picture of the 1980s.
At its most archetypal, post-punk focuses on rhythms. While it often wasn’t as danceable as John Lydon claimed it was when he started Public Image Ltd., most post-punk relies on bending and twisting rhythms in ways that strive to imitate nature yet create something more artificial and alien. Modern English’s debut Mesh and Lace is very much that kind of record; it finds the band relying on off-kilter, repetitive rhythm playing and sharp, jittery guitars to create this overall mood of alienation and cold distance. There isn’t much in terms of memorable melodic creations, though; Modern English were a relatively new band and were clearly still figuring out how to properly write songs as a result. What’s here is largely ideas, concepts that the band were tinkering with in an effort to create something closer to art than pop. When judged on those terms, Mesh and Lace is largely a success, and it’s still a captivating listen, even if it isn’t the most purely enjoyable album in the world. There are hints at what the band would eventually be capable of, most notably the booming, dynamic opener “Gathering Dust,” but for its many merits, Mesh and Lace is an example of a band committing so deeply to a particular aesthetic that it holds them back.
Whereas Mesh and Lace was focused on rhythm and creating a mood, After the Snow is about the songs. Listening to both albums back-to-back is perhaps the best way to experience what happened here; the leap in quality between the two albums is astounding. A lot of the post-punk trappings the band were playing with on the previous here, but they’re paired with more melodically open and appealing songs. Robbie Grey’s vocals, once a stark weapon of impending doom that too closely resembled his arch, arty peers, is softer here,and Stephen Walker’s keyboards have even more of a presence. One might be tempted to yell “sell-out,” but Mesh and Lace is definitely a natural progression for the band rather than a sharp turn towards the pop charts. There are moments of sweet, grand romanticism (“Dawn Chorus” and the ubiquitous “I Melt With You” among them), but they’re paired with more obtuse offerings that mirror their previous album yet sound fresher and more complete. If there is a complete picture of what Modern English were at their best, After the Snow is it.
Like many of the flashes-in-the-pan from their era, Modern English deserve a legacy beyond one song. While “I Melt with You” is an undeniable classic, it shouldn’t be the defining aspect of what they were as a band. As their first two albums deftly show, Modern English were more adventurous and multi-faceted than most famous song would imply. While their ambitions didn’t always pan out, both of their early records deserve the sort of reconsideration that these reissues invite.