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John Foxx: In Mysterious Ways (1985) October 4, 2010

Posted by sjroby in Music.
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John Foxx: In Mysterious Ways

John Foxx: In Mysterious Ways

A bit of background: In the late 1970s, Roxy Music recreated itself as a smooth, glossy, pop band with little of the invention and creativity of its early albums. Flesh + Blood, for instance, was expensively produced, commercial dance pop. For a lot of fans — including myself, sometimes — it feels too conventional and commercial to rank as one of their classics.And yet… I wouldn’t want to lose songs like “Oh Yeah,” “Over You,” or “Same Old Scene.”

A little more background: in the mid-’80s, a lot of the bands that were playing synth-heavy, arty new wave/postpunk music a few years earlier moved away from their roots, shooting for either pure pop appeal or some kind of rockist authenticity, adding more conventional instruments to their sound and, often, moving away from oblique or abstract lyrics to U2-style anthems. Ultravox started in that direction on Lament and lost all traces of their ealier sound(s) on U-VOX; the Simple Minds went bombastic on Sparkle in the Rain and AOR on Once Upon a Time; OMD became a catchy pop band; the Human League and Depeche Mode experimented with guitars; Gary Numan tried to get funky… maybe it was the result of feeling that they’d done what they could with their original styles and wanting to expand their horizons; maybe it was the way synthesizers became a big part of mainstream ’80s rock and pop and were no longer a futuristic, cutting edge sound.

It’s in that context that John Foxx’s fourth solo album appeared. His first, Metamatic, was almost all synthesized; The Garden was something of a return to his Ultravox sound and (it seemed to me, at least) someone taking the idea of “new romantic” as more than a fashion statement; The Golden Section continued in that direction with the addition of some Beatles/psychedelia influences. He was, in his own way, making a move similar to many of his peers by using more guitars.

But In Mysterious Ways caught Foxx fans flatfooted. Though he’d had some chart success in the UK before, it had been a matter of the time being right for someone doing what he was doing. In Mysterious Ways, by comparison, felt like the work of someone consciously changing his style in an attempt at getting more mainstream success. It has more conventional big ’80s production, female backing vocals that are at times over the top, and the love song lyrics are a long way from the Ballardian feel of Metamatic. Essentially, it’s Foxx’s version of Roxy’s Flesh + Blood, or Bowie’s Let’s Dance, the big pop move. Except that Foxx’s didn’t work. The fans weren’t crazy about it and no new audience materialized.

For years I thought of In Mysterious Ways as sort of the equivalent to his former band’s U-VOX: the moment where it all went wrong. Ultravox broke up after U-VOX, and Foxx didn’t release any new albums for more than a decade after In Mysterious Ways. But here’s the thing: I can’t listen to U-VOX, but I really enjoy In Mysterious Ways. Foxx’s big dramatic love songs, even through the glossy production, feel real. He sounds genuinely happy and in love. Where his vocals on Metamatic were generally cool and controlled, he’s unrestrainedly emotional here.

In 2008, In Mysterious Ways was reissued as a double CD set with a number of previously unreleased tracks. Some strike me as not just commercial but uninspired; the bonus disc isn’t going to strike many as a lost masterpiece. But there’s one interesting change: one of the original album tracks, the pounding and overblown “This Side of Paradise,” was replaced by the nearly acoustic ballad “Spin Away.” Its production doesn’t quite match the rest of the album, but the feel is appropriate. One thing I hadn’t consciously noticed before: “This Side of Paradise” sounds very much like it was intentionally modeled on Simple Minds’ Sparkle in the Rain, with its big damn overproduction by Steve Lillywhite. Worked better for Simple Minds, though.

I was in a bit of a mood this afternoon and put this album on for the heck of it, and almost instantly I was smiling and feeling a lot better. That’s pretty damn good for an album that seemed like a disappointment 25 years ago.