It used to be that dance music was an essentially frivolous forum for pop musicians. Because the bottom line was simply to get people up and dancing, the emphasis was on engaging the listener's body, not his or her mind, and as a result, romantic rhymes and nonsense syllables reigned supreme. There were exceptions, of course -- James Brown's "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud," for instance -- but even these tended to reduce their messages to slogans as simple as a song title or chorus refrain.
No longer. British pop, in particular, has proven fertile ground for sowing ideas with a dance beat. When the new wave swept over British universities in the late 1970s, the medium of dance music was no longer seen as its own message; from the structuralist social analysis of the Gang of Four to the sexual manifestoes of the Au Pairs, these bands crammed as much meaning as possible into their songs, and then grounded them with an insistent back beat.
Politics, though, isn't the only concern these groups address. Unlikely as it may seem, Tears for Fears, an Irish quintet appearing at GWU's Smith Center Monday, uses its songs as a forum for mental health issues. That's not to say that "Songs from the Big Chair" (Mercury 824 300-1M-1), the group's latest, is the rock equivalent of "Modern Man in Search of a Soul," but there's no denying that the album does address some unusual concerns.
"Shout," which opens the album, seems almost a reference to Arthur Janov's primal scream therapy, urging as it does to "let it all out." Whatever its philosophy, though, the song expresses the belief that a person's internal pressures need to be released, and offers the catharsis of dance music -- guided, of course, by the lyrics -- as a means. Crackpot as that may seem on the surface, it has powerful historical precedents, as almost all primitive societies practice rituals in which certain evils or threats are danced down. All Tears for Fears suggests is that we adapt the practice to our own times and terms.
It's worth noting that the group's music is well matched to its goals. "Shout" is set to a clanking, kinetic pulse carrying a hypnotic allure. "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," by contrast, swings with a blithe whimsy, at once acknowledging and dismissing the problem this song addresses, while "Mothers Talk" sets up a rhythmic dreadnought that sets a delicious tension between the music and the recurring chorus of "We can work it out."
If Tears for Fears has a weakness, it's the ease with which their sound detours into art rock excess. True, they nonetheless pull excitement from these excursions, as "Broken" aptly illustrates, but it's not hard to believe that the group would benefit from the sort of single-mindedness exhibited by New Order on "Low-Life" (Qwest 25289-1).
This Manchester-based quartet rose from the ashes of Joy Division, whose epical "Love Will Tear Us Apart" was a masterpiece of romantic doom, and although the band's songs have concerned themselves with such subjects as economic exploitation and interpersonal alienation, the music's energy was derived from the friction between the musicians' passion and the music's asceticism.
On "Low-Life," this conflict is resolved with breathtaking efficiency as New Order refines its music and toughens its lyrical stance. The music itself is leaner and more efficient than before, often stripped down to just a basic beat and melodic hook, and this helps focus the songs. "Sooner Than You Think," for instance, unfurls its description of circumstantial love with admirable restraint, keeping the rhythm uncluttered at first and slowly building momentum until the final, instrumental chorus cuts loose in suggestive abandon. That same carefully compressed energy tumbles naturally into the constricted corridors of "Sub-Culture," which, by swapping restraint for repression, makes a subtle, telling point about two different types of love denied.
Best of all, New Order has managed, through songs like the hauntingly melancholy "Love Vigilantes," to make their lyrics as bluntly effective as their music. This last trick is an important step to pop accessibility, but it's equally essential to remember that the trick lies in developing a workable balance between the two. Go West, a London-based duo, don't manage this often enough on their debut, "Go West" (Chrysalis BFV 41495), but their best work promises much.
The album's high points, "We Close Our Eyes" and "Goodbye Girl," do an admirable job of setting up a point of view and allowing the listener to see through it, both by way of the lyrical perspective and the somewhat ironic stance of the music. But both Peter Cox and Richard Drummie display an annoying weakness for glib, studio-conscious professionalism in their work, and that ultimately sabotages the content of songs like "Don't Look Down" and "Innocence."