Graded on a Curve:
Gary Numan,
The Pleasure Principle

I’ve never warmed up to synthesizers, and isn’t that the point? They’re supposed to sound steely cold and inhuman–they’re machines, for christ’s sake, and utterly incapable of that friendly human touch one associates with, say, Eddie Vedder or your local insurance agent.

For this reason and many others having to do with angular haircuts and architectural clothing I’ve always abhorred English synthpop. But that was before I finally managed to overcome my atavistic aversion to the stuff long enough to listen to one of the grandaddies of them all–Gary Numan’s 1979 LP The Pleasure Principle.

Nothing succeeds like excess, and on his first post-Tubeway Army outing Numan dispensed with the electric guitars and went full robot. What’s more, not only do the synthesizers sound like machines–he does too. As a result this fancy piece of state-of-the-art electronics with its telegraphic one-word song titles is as cold as Antarctica–colder even because Gary got rid off all the penguins!

The Pleasure Principle–which is all about the pleasures and perils of alienation, and the myriad disadvantages of being sentient–may be as frigid as a meat locker, but it’s as hook-filled as a meat locker too. But not always–Numan also tosses in some frosty and atmospheric instrumentals (“Airlane,” “Asylum”) along the lines of David Bowie’s ambient work with Brian Eno. (As for the non-instrumentals, some bring to mind Eno’s early solo work, sans quirks.)

Keyboardists Numan and Chris Payne (who also dabbles on plain old-fashioned piano) do a wonderful thing with their Minimoogs and Polymoogs, namely produce big washes of melody on one hand while punctuating them with swoops, blips, buzzes, bleeps and twitters on the other. Meanwhile, a real live drummer (the wonderfully named Cedric Sharpley) and a real live bassist (Paul Gardiner) lay down a real live rock’n’roll bottom, and it’s the rock’n’roll part that first won me over.

Songs like “Metal,” “M.E.,” and “Cars” (to name just a few) ain’t your limpid and fey English synthpop–they’re hardcore, metal machine music for actual machines. This is frightening stuff, and it’s not just rhythm section doing the intimidating; seems Numan went out and found himself some synthesizers with attitude. Replace the synthesizers with guitars, and this baby would probably be in Chuck Eddy’s Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe!

The trick with The Pleasure Principle is just lie back and let the machines take over. Stop fighting, resistance is futile! It takes only a couple of listens to come around to the demoralizing conclusion that it’s not technology that’s the problem–it’s human beings! We have a terminal illness of the brain and it’s called “feeling!” And this horrible affliction is the cause of every single problem in the world! Best to get away from one another and live in self-contained pods! Or better yet, find a way to yank out all that troublesome emotional wiring in our heads and become cyborgs!

The Pleasure Principle is the sound of men wanting to be machines and machines dreaming of becoming men. “I could learn to be a man… like you” sings Numan in “Metal”; in “Engineers” he puts forward the interesting notion that he’s a kind of throbbing artificial heart that keeps us “alive for now.” But he’s hardly keeping us around out of the milk of human kindness; all he knows, he sings at song’s end, “is hate and machinery.” Which is (or should be) reassuring, I suppose–animals (and who knows, maybe machines too) are capable of love, but hate is a uniquely human emotion.

No, our Gary’s human, so human in fact he wants out (my old pal Brad: “I’m so alive I wish I was dead.”) On “Films” he wants to pull down all the sets, turn off the lights, and turn off the sound. On “M.E.” he basically says fuck it, he’s done with other human beings altogether: “Why should I care/Why should I try/Oh no, oh no/I turned off the pain/Like I turned off you all/Now there’s only M.E.”

We’re only safe when we’re alone and insulated from it all; on the big hit single Numan sings he feels “safest of all” in his car, alone of course, and with doors locked. But cutting yourself off from everybody and everything has its price–Pascal posited that all of man’s problems stem from his inability to sit alone in a quiet room, and the same principle applies to your 2012 Subaru. There’s a reason people shut themselves up in their cars with the garage door down and the engine running. Small wonder Gary soon finds himself pleading: “Will you visit me please?/If I open my door?”

Being human can be a nerve-wracking experience, and on the instrumental soundscapes “Oceans” and “Airlanes” Numan does his best to slip us a calmative–both songs are as tranquilizing as Valium, and who doesn’t need a Valium now and again? The foreboding instrumental “Asylum,” not so much–this isn’t asylum as in a place of safe refuge, it’s asylum as in the locked ward of your nearest mental hospital.

The Romanian philosopher E.M. Cioran once wrote, “He who has never envied the vegetable has missed the human drama.” Machine envy, ditto. The burden of consciousness is a heavy one, the pain of being alive a malignant throb that sometimes increases to a scream. Wouldn’t it be nice to be, say, a toaster, if only for a little while? It certainly beats being toast.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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