Graded on a Curve:
Huey Lewis and The News, The Heart of Rock & Roll: The Best of Huey Lewis and The News

When it comes to Huey Lewis and The News, the only critical analysis that really matters is the one delivered by Patrick Bateman, the New York investment banker/serial killer protagonist of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho.

Bateman’s infamous monologue (in the 1991 film adaptation, anyway) goes, “Their early work was a little too new wave for my tastes, but when Sports came out in ’83, I think they really came into their own, commercially and artistically. The whole album has a clear, crisp sound, and a new sheen of consummate professionalism that really gives the songs a big boost. He’s been compared to Elvis Costello, but I think Huey has a far more bitter, cynical sense of humor.” (That last line always cracks me up.)

Bateman’s assessment of Huey Lewis and The News is as gleefully perverse as his favorite hobby, but let’s consider for a moment the possibility that it’s, er, dead on. Sure, his appraisal’s every bit as generic and shallow (“a new sheen of consummate professionalism that gives the songs a big boost”) as the bland façade of normalcy he projects to protect his depraved inner life, but there’s no denying that millions of people gobbled the music of Huey Lewis up, and it most certainly was not because they were looking for some deep message of social or personal import in such songs as “Hip To Be Square” or “I Want a New Drug.” No, one can only conclude that during the 1980s (Lewis’ heyday) the world was FULL of Patrick Batemans, even if they weren’t all murderous psychopaths.

Of course, there’s another possibility, namely that Lewis’ string of MOR hits were actually good, but who wants to go there? Why, it’s too awful to even contemplate. But I’m a professional and sometimes being a professional means descending into the sewer of popular culture to check out the size of the rats. So I girded my loins and turned on Huey’s 1992 U.K.-only best of compilation The Heart of Rock & Roll: The Best of Huey Lewis and The News, after first making sure I had no lethally sharp objects around should his music transform me into the kind of person who slices and dices other people up for kicks. I want a new drug as much as the next guy, but vivisection just ain’t my idea of fun.

Time has a way of making songs you once despised with all your heart more palatable, and I have to admit that I don’t hate most of Lewis’ hits as much as I used to. It’s kind of like running into a high school bully 20 years after graduation and finding out he’s not such really such a bad guy after all. I can even listen to “The Power of Love” without throwing up in my mouth. It’s kinda catchy, actually, as is the motorvatin’ “Workin’ for a Livin’,” which boasts a cool organ that reminds me of Elvis Costello because, well, keyboard player Sean Hopper just happened to play on Costello’s My Aim Is True, as did the other members of the News.

But I’m not about to sit here and try to be serious about the music of Huey Lewis. No, let me instead play the devil’s advocate here, and adopt the persona of Patrick Bateman for a moment. Because he’s right—on songs like “The Heart of Rock & Roll” and “Stuck With You” Lewis strikes the perfect note of quotidian normalcy that he celebrates on that anthem to being uncool, “Hip To Be Square.” “Hip To Be Square” was (and remains!) thee consummate declaration of independence from the baleful demands of keeping up with the latest trends; just be yourself, Lewis tells us over a driving beat that never veers into anything as hip as punk and a horn solo that is the very definition of MOR, and if that includes playing golf or even taking an ax to strangers—because let’s face it, everybody’s a stranger when you really come down to it—so be it!

And what is “If This Is It” but the very template of every single AOR rock song by every faceless band that stalked the earth during the MTV age? Only better! And the same can be said of the extraordinarily ordinary “Do You Believe in Love?” It’s such a perfect work of art it could have been written by anybody, but wasn’t! No, Huey Lewis and The News recorded it, just as they were the band that gave us the sublimely vacuous “Heart and Soul,” which includes a heavy guitar riff that is the very definition of generic chic.

But why go into the gory details? Every cut, and by that I mean every single bloody cut on this compilation is an example of what can be achieved by taking the “sound” of an era and perfecting it via slick studio techniques that leave absolutely no room for the kind of invidious quirks that sink so many bands that foolishly believe it’s their job to “express” their individuality. Because we’re not “individuals”—we’re either killers or prey! Only on the false step “Jacob’s Ladder”—which was written by Bruce Hornsby, figures—do Huey and The News stray into the dark waters of self-expression, and I can’t listen to it without wanting to visit Mr. Hornsby with a long and very sharp kitchen knife.

Huey Lewis and The News exemplified everything that was best about the ’80s; they rocked hard but always within the bounds of conformity, producing vapid feel-good music for a revanchist audience weary of debased punk notions of nihilism and nattering negativity. As Patrick Bateman notes of “Hip to Be Square,” “Most people probably don’t listen to the lyrics. But they should, because it’s not just about the pleasures of conformity, and the importance of trends, it’s also a personal statement about the band itself.” Huey Lewis and The News reveled in their normality, and their relentlessly upbeat but ultimately empty music provided the perfect soundtrack for all those ruthless venture capitalists seeking the perfect mask of cheerful ordinariness to hide behind. Even if you were the sort of person who slashed jobs instead of people, Huey was in your corner, and for that we all owe the man and his band a debt of gratitude.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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