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The Anxiety Of Reverse Influence: Gary Numan’s Splinter

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Fans of the band Rush or of Stephen Colbert will remember the great episode of The Colbert Report on which Colbert interviewed Rush.  A question that cracked me up was “Have you ever played a song that was so epic that, by the time it was over, you had influenced yourselves?”  While that question was meant (and succeeded) as a great joke, it’s one that can legitimately be asked of some elder artists.

Gary Numan, with a string of albums in the seventies and eighties (notably Replicas, The Pleasure Principle, and Telekon), more or less invented industrial and techno music.  (I am aware that that is a sweeping statement that needs qualification, but please let it stand for a moment.)  What then is he to do in 2013, when many of the bands who learned from, built on, and profited (artistically and financially) from his groundbreaking work have come and gone?  Well, he put out a damned fine album two years ago (Dead Son Rising), and this year, he’s back with Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind).

Numan 2.0

Probably only his biggest fans will know that Numan has gone scarcely a year between 1979 and today without putting out an album.  But much of his output has been neglected, I think largely eclipsed by acts he inspired and whose spin on industrial and electronic music was for some reason more to the taste of the times.  But his commitment and talent are as clear as ever on this new album.  More than that, his voice – never the most mellifluous – has taken on new shadings, so that this batch of songs is given an atmospheric spin not just by the music but also by that foreboding vocal.  Check out, for example, the title song (and my favourite on the new album), on which his lead and background vocals alike transport us to a world both robotic and mournful.

Any Hits?

Okay, leaving aside the changed notion of the “hit single” (remember when that meant that those people on the radio played a song over and over, usually because we the listeners really liked it?), I don’t hear a single song on Splinter that will likely grab the collective ear the way “Cars” did back in the prehistoric days of 1979.  However, and as much as I like that song and Numan’s others from that era, I have to grant that some of the new compositions are more complex, more mature, in many ways more gratifying – if not as immediately sonically pleasing.  “Lost,” “Love Hurt Bleed” (what a title!), the chilling “We’re the Unforgiven,” and album-ending track “My Last Day” are real crackers, that last one featuring what (from Numan) I can almost call a tender vocal.  This is good stuff. 

The Question Of Influence

The neat thing is that Numan has clearly not just been putting out albums all these years – he’s been listening, too.  This is thoroughly modern music from a man who is more responsible than any other single artist for some of the most popular subgenres of the nineties and beyond, and here he is, putting out music that couldn’t be mistaken for any other artist’s but which is still vital, interesting, enjoyable.  Numan is an artist worth keeping up with.


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