What separates the truly creative artists from the dull-witted majority in the burgeoning synth-pop field is a healthy self-respect. While the more malleable musicians are easily seduced by a cheap thrill from an expensive machine, the more mature artists hold out for a more equal relationship--and maybe even romance. Artists like Yaz, Pete Shelley, Tears For Fears, Heaven 17, Thomas Dolby and the Eurhythmics bring such a substantial human presence to the synthesizer that a dynamic tension develops between man and machine.
Synthesizers have provided pop musicians with a mind-boggling array of new sounds with which to portray the world. Yet synthesizers are primarily conceptual rather than performance instruments. Once they're programmed and set in motion, they offer few chances for the player to intuitively shape the phrasing and the tone--to make the spontaneous choices that reveal character. The smartest synth-pop songwriters have recognized this and have created more personal, more spontaneous elements that then contend with the fateful machines.
This contention is most dramatic on "You and Me Both" (Sire 23903-1), the second album by Yaz, a British duo that has seldom toured and has broken up several times. Vince Clarke (formerly of Depeche Mode) conceives and executes the multiple layers of synthesizers that march forward with implacable authority. Alison "Alf" Moyet counters with a bluesy alto voice that gums up the gears with a stubbornly personal moodiness. On Moyet's "Anyone," she sings, "Fate took a freeway to my room," and Clark's synthesizers wash up on the melody like unstoppable waves. Yet Moyet's vocal gradually gathers enough self-confidence to insist in her husky purr: "I can be anything; I can be anyone."
This tension between fate and free will is applied to both love affairs and death. "Nobody's Diary," "Softly Over" and "Walk Away From Love" all describe relationships that are falling apart as surely as the synthesizers work out their fascinating patterns. Nevertheless Moyet pours all her heart into doomed pleas to turn the relationship around. On "Sweet Thing," the synthesizers cook up an uptempo rush toward romance, and with a swoon Moyet sings: "Sweet thing--submission--I give in." "Unmarked" is Clarke's stubborn protest against the historical imperative to war, while "And On" is Moyet's emotional struggle to make sense out of the death of a friend.
Clarke's synthesizer arrangements create an unusual splendor because they shift gears so often without losing their strong melodic chassis and harmonic body. Moyet's voice counters with an unusual intimacy: she is able to flush out so many nuances without resorting to high volume.
More than anyone else, Pete Shelley has transformed the no-frills drive and raw energy of the punk movement into the synth-pop setting. Shelley--once coleader of the pioneer punk band the Buzzcocks--places precise, hard-charging synthesizers at the center of his music and sloppy thrashing drums and guitars around the edges on his second solo album, "XL1" (Arista AL6-8017).
Coproducer Martin Rushent (of Human League fame) supplies the reassuring technological core; coproducer Shelley throws in the element of rock 'n' roll suspense. It helps that Shelley writes sing-along melodies to go with his dance-along grooves on the best songs: "Telephone Operator" (already a dance club hit), "You Know Better Than I Know" and "Millions of People (No One Like You)." At times it seems as if the machines are scrambling to keep up with Shelley rather than the other way around.
Tears For Fears has scored several big hits in its native England with synthesizer arrangements that move lightly and gracefully. The vocals, though, dig back through the synthesized symmetry of adulthood in search of painful childhood memories. Roland Orzabal, who wrote all the songs, shares the vocals with Curt Smith, and both are avid fans of Arthur Janov's "primal scream" theories. Their approach is best summarized on "The Hurting": "Touch the hurt and don't let go/ Get in line with the things you know/ Learn to cry like a baby, then the hurting won't come back."
Though the vocals have a heavily echoed, depressed tone, the music features bright melodies that are ingeniously elaborated on in one attractive synthesizer embellishment after another. The quartet's debut album, "The Hurting" (Mercury 811 039-1 M-1), is highlighted by its big British singles: the thick harmonies of "Mad World," the contrast of slow acoustic guitar and uptempo drum machines on "Pale Shelter" and the synthesized marimba calypso on "Change."