MISTAKE NO. 3," the best cut on Culture Club's third album, "Waking Up with the House on Fire," proves an ironic/alternative title for those who find the band's glossy production and confusing esthetics less provocative than on the earlier albums, "Kissing to Be Clever" and "Colour by Numbers." Although the new album has its share of potential hit singles, there's little that's memorable although everything's agreeable. You may hum the new Culture Club tunes, but you're not likely to remember their frequently undirected lyrics.
The first single out of the blocks is "The War Song," sloganeering pop aimed at the innocent of all ages. With its catchy, anthemic chorus echoing the pop-reggae lilt of "I'll Tumble 4 Ya," "War Song" is the embodiment of Culture Club's bright and sassy pop disposition overriding its thematic confusion. For instance, "Dangerous Man" evokes Martin Luther King Jr., John Lennon and Brian Epstein to little purpose.
About the only real stand Culture Club espouses is one of disassociation from the responsibility that goes with fame. On "The Medal Song," Boy George steps out of keening chorales long enough to deliver a new manifesto: "We are just everyday people / not a theater company / everyone wants to join us / there's no fear in us you see / it's me for you and you for me." And in "Mannequin," he showcases his clever rhyming with "I can give you nothing but me though / it isn't what you want to see oh." When Boy George is on, his lyrics take on a pop-haiku glaze; when he's off (which is more often the case this time around), they seem plastic and inevitable.
A number the songs fail dismally: "Hello Goodbye" is flaccid hard rock, while the terse "Crime Time" unconvincingly echoes T. Rex and C. Perkins-style rockabilly. Neither is prime-Club material. "The Dive" is yet another dance-floor dither and throughout Boy George, usually the epitome of outre confidence, sounds uncomfortable. His singing's almost harsh, less vulnerable, more calculated, the exception being "Mistake No. 3." This, the album's only ballad, is lush, liquid and silky like Hall and Oates, with the coquette buried and the lover hurting publicly. It's the kind of soulful singing George does best.
Like Michael Jackson and Prince, Boy George and his cronies do a fair amount of musical gender-bending. One hears elements of bubblefunk, calypso, salsa, synth-pop, reggae, soul and mainstream pop thrown into Steve Levine's production blender only to emerge as irresistible pop panache. The playing throughout is excellent, and with choruses evoking Zulu, doo-wop and gospel harmonies, "Waking Up with the House on Fire" sounds great. But it's not. CULTURE CLUB -- "Waking Up with the House on Fire" (Virgin/Epic OE39881); at Capital Centre Sunday.