It’s been a boring week, musically speaking, so I’m going to try something different this week. I had originally planned to write about new records from Philip Selway and Jenny and Johnny (Lewis and Rice, respectively), but then I listened to them, and found I didn’t have much to say about either one. (I reservedly liked them both. What I came up with can be found at tm3am.blogspot.com.)
But I started this column as something of a travelogue of my journeys in music, chronicling the events in my obsessive, addictive life. And this week, an unreleased album from 1989 has been dominating a lot of my listening time. I realize I’m opening myself up to a lot of ridicule with this one, but it’s about time I discuss a band that means a lot to me. That band (he says, ducking for cover) is Mr. Mister.
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I don’t know if you’re on Facebook, but for the past two weeks or so, there’s been this little game going around. You’re supposed to list 15 albums that have made an impact on you, and you’re supposed to do it in no more than 15 minutes. The idea isn’t to put together a list of the best records you’ve heard, but the ones that have left a lasting impression, or were important in your musical growth. This is exactly the kind of thing all my Facebook friends are certain I’ll enjoy doing, and after the third or fourth tag, I finally composed my list.
I did it in about three minutes, though, and while I’d probably make some revisions if given the chance (No XTC? Really?), I decided to just go with my first instincts. I kept the list in the order I thought of it, starting with the Beatles and Brian Wilson (obvious) and moving through more personal stuff (Human Radio, Tori Amos). And there at number 10 is Mr. Mister’s 1987 album Go On. It was literally one of the first 10 albums that came into my head.
Believe me, I understand all the criticisms of this band. They’re faceless, people say. Even their name is practically anonymous, and singer Richard Page, while quite good, isn’t what you’d call distinctive. They play radio-ready synth-driven fare, straight out of the ‘80s, but without the sense of fun. Everyone in the band was (and still is) a session musician. They’re like Toto, without the personality. I hear all of that, and I get why they’re saying it.
But they’re wrong. At least, to me they’re wrong. Mr. Mister is one of those bands that imprinted themselves on me at an early age, and truly got me thinking about what kind of music I wanted to hear most. I was 11 years old when “Kyrie” and “Broken Wings” were all over the radio, and I’m not ashamed to admit I loved those songs. I still think of “Broken Wings” as one of the finest songs of the ‘80s, and the album the hits hailed from, Welcome to the Real World, was in near-endless rotation in my preteen years. (I just recently bought the 25th anniversary edition, which made me feel older than I can tell you.)
For all that, though, Welcome is just a pop record, a collection of catchy ditties. I still like it, particularly “Don’t Slow Down,” and I used “Uniform of Youth” to score part of a movie I helped make in college, but that album doesn’t get a lot of love in my house. Its follow-up, on the other hand, I have memorized.
Go On hit when I was 13, and it knocked me flat. It was a commercial failure, particularly when compared with Welcome, and just as a side note, I don’t get that, because if an album is popular enough to spawn two songs virtually everyone alive at the time can still sing from memory, that album’s follow-up is surely worth at least a curiosity listen from the masses. But apparently America had had enough of this band, just as I was falling in love with them.
Go On isn’t just a pop album to me. It was one of the first Serious Artistic Statements I’d heard, and while I’ll never pretend this record is anything profound, it does approach its subject matter (including abandoned children of U.S. soldiers, spiritual dishonesty, the destructive nature of television, and human interconnectedness) with earnest intent. It’s clear the band was trying to make Something Important. In the words of the first single, “Something Real.” And yes, I was 13, but for me, they succeeded brilliantly.
But why do I still love Go On? Why, 23 years later, have I never grown tired of it? It’s not just nostalgia, not just adolescent imprinting. I honestly, sincerely, truly love this album. These songs work for me still, even though the production is dated. I think part of it is the sense of yearning for truth that runs through every track. That’s not a quality one usually associates with keyboard-driven pop from the ‘80s, but it’s here, and it’s the lifeblood of this record.
Yes, some of this yearning is clearly spiritual. Both “Healing Waters” and “Man of a Thousand Dances” utilize big gospel choirs, and the lyrics are about Page’s struggles with his own faith. But much of it is human, as perfectly summed up in the gorgeous closer, “The Border.” “Every step we take gives us the strength to go on, and all the love we make gets us closer to home,” Page sings over a lush synth backdrop. It’s the culmination of the searching lyrics in “Stand and Deliver” and “Power Over Me,” just as “Thousand Dances” wraps up the journey started in “Healing Waters” and “Watching the World.”
Along the way, Page and company take on some heady issues. I still haven’t heard another song that addresses the same subject matter as “Dust,” about the children fathered by U.S. soldiers and left behind in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. The song’s a mini-masterpiece of mood. “Out of the dust reach tiny hands to touch their fathers in other lands…” Still gives me chills. “The Tube” thrills me in a different way – it’s not subtle, but Page ties his condemnation of television into the larger theme of human connection: “Well dear, it’s a good thing, I don’t have to look at you, you don’t have to look at me, I think that’s a good thing…”
At its core, Go On is all about how we’re all one, and we should act like it. This isn’t a new observation, and I can name dozens of records that explore it in more depth. But there are very few with the hold over me this one has. I have no illusions about the fact that anyone coming to Go On now will probably not hear the same thing I hear, and will likely snicker at this little love letter. I’ve already been laughed at numerous times for praising Mr. Mister’s forgotten third album, so I’m used to it. I can’t help it. This album is hugely important to me, and even now, I love listening to it. I’m listening to it right now, in fact, and grinning with inexplicable joy.
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All of which was my way of setting up what happened to me last week.
As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m an extremely loyal music fan. I’ll follow a band for decades, if they let me. I’m also pretty good at keeping up with the travels of my favorite musicians, long after they’ve left the spotlight. But for some reason, before last week, I’d never heard Pull, the fourth Mr. Mister album.
Yes, there was a fourth. No, it was never released, although Richard Page has announced it will be officially made available in October. It was recorded in 1989, after the departure of guitarist Steve Farris, and the band used session guitarists (ironic!), including Trevor Rabin of Yes. I’ve known of Pull’s existence for a while, and heard “Waiting in My Dreams,” the song that appeared on a best-of some years ago. But for some reason, I’d never heard the whole thing.
Enter music fan Brian Smith, who pointed me in the right direction. (I won’t let on, but if you search for it, you’re bound to find it.) This, for me, was like discovering Human Radio II some years ago. More music from a discarded band I love. How great is that? Pull has the added cachet of having been rejected by RCA Records, and I’m always interested to hear things the guys in suits don’t want me to. I mean, they paid for it. Exactly what could make the record company wave away something they’d already bought? I was fascinated to find out.
After listening about seven times, I’m pretty sure what freaked out RCA. Pull is a weird record, at least by Mr. Mister standards. I’m not an A&R man from the ‘80s, but I don’t hear a killer single. What I do hear, though, is a moody, dark and ultimately rewarding record, one that travels further down the path the band started with Go On, albeit without the social conscience. The lyrics are aiming for the charts, but the music is decidedly strange, built on atmosphere instead of hooks.
With all that, I quite like it. I’m not sure what I would have thought had I heard this in 1989 or 1990, but sonically, this is a nice leap from the comparatively upbeat Go On, stepping more into a progressive realm. I bet the RCA bigwigs were hoping this art-pop thing was a phase, and the Misters would get back to writing hits with album four. Instead, they jumped further into difficult, brooding material, some of it actually presaging drummer Pat Mastelloto’s later work with King Crimson.
Just listen to “Close Your Eyes,” one of the most radio-ready tracks here. Washes of minor-key synths drape themselves over a tricky, mid-tempo beat. The chorus is less of a hook than a hand-off – the whole thing flows nicely from end to end, without actually changing much. Despite lyrics promising safety, the song sounds menacing to me. “Waiting in My Dreams” is similar. The chorus (“Waiting in my dreams, when I close my eyes you’re here with me…”) sounds sweet, but in its musical context, it’s almost spooky.
“Like Rain Falling” is my favorite. Rousing blasts of electric guitars surround the most immediate chorus of the lot, and though this tune never explodes, it’s the loudest and most energetic thing here. The second half of Pull is one proggy mid-tempo piece after another, culminating in “Way Oh,” a nearly instrumental outing that closes things out in style. More than any other Mr. Mister album, this one demands and rewards repeated listens. I wish I could say RCA was nuts not to release it, but if they were looking for another “Kyrie,” then I can understand reacting negatively to this.
Me, I think it’s pretty great, and I’m glad I finally got to hear it. It’s like finally finishing a puzzle I started when I was a kid.
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I also wish I could say this story has a happier ending.
In addition to Pull, Brian Smith also made me aware of Richard Page’s new solo record, Peculiar Life. I wasn’t overly fond of his first one, 1996’s Shelter Me, but I plunked down my cash anyway. Now, I love Page’s voice. I’d probably pay to hear him sing anything. But Peculiar Life is fraught with the same disease that afflicts so many artists from my youth: Page grew up and he calmed down. It’s a tepid, safe, middle-aged affair with only a few remarkable songs, and some cringe-worthy lyrics.
But Page means them all. He has always understood the importance of being earnest. On this album, alas, that means giving us banal observations about life and love. “A Kiss on the Wind,” the slow and silky opener, is one of the best, but even that has lyrics like this: “Let the wind blow, and let the tears flow, and thank you for the chance to feel my heart again.” I’d never say he’s wrong, or untruthful – we are here and then gone, with not much to lean upon, as he sings. I just can name so many other songs that say the same thing more artfully.
Peculiar Life veers between acoustic balladry and prog-pop with a pulse, and the latter stuff is pretty good. “Worldly Things” rises from its white-funk opening to become a melodic tour de force, and “Brand New Day” (not the Sting song, thankfully) does the same thing, besting its too-simple prelude with a burst of loud guitars. “Shadow on My Life” is probably my favorite, since it shares some sonic similarities with the Pull material.
But elsewhere, Page sounds just like his detractors have always said he does: anonymous. The light reggae beat of “No Tomorrow,” the basic chords and sentiments of “You Are Mine,” the teary-eyed numbers at the end… none of it has any real spark. Page’s voice is in fine form, as always, but there’s more than a touch of your father’s Oldsmobile to this. He even does a duet with his daughter Aja, a budding singer herself. But father-daughter duets are a certain sign that an artist has settled down to a comfortable life. If you like simple, surface-level balladry, there’s nothing wrong with Peculiar Life. But there’s nothing about it that sounds like it came from one of my favorite artists, either.
But that’s all right. Page is still a great singer, and I’m still happy I heard this. And as one of the minds behind Go On, a record I expect I’ll never tire of, he gets a lifetime pass to do whatever he wants. He’s already given me more joy than most. I’ll buy whatever he does next, and when Pull gets its full-on remastered release, I’ll pick that up too. No matter how many times they’re called a two-hit wonder, Mr. Mister means a lot to me. And probably always will.
Go On is long out of print, but you can probably find it on eBay or other similar sites. Peculiar Life (as well as a free download from Pull)is available at Richard’s site.
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In case you’re interested, here’s my 15 Albums list:
The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Beatles – Revolver
The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds
Brian Wilson – SMiLE
The Cure – Disintegration
The Choir – Circle Slide
Tori Amos – Little Earthquakes
Aimee Mann – Whatever
Mr. Mister – Go On
Adam Again – Dig
Jellyfish – Spilt Milk
The Alarm – Eye of the Hurricane
Sufjan Stevens – Illinois
Radiohead – OK Computer
See you in line Tuesday morning.