This has been a rotten year for pop music. Not that 2019 was an especially good or bad year in general for listeners; there were the usual percolating surprises and pleasures. What I am referring to is that this is the year HBO debuted the 4 hour-long Leaving Neverland, a documentary detailing painful child sexual molestation allegations from Wade Robson and James Safechuck against Michael Jackson. Intimate reminiscences from the boys as well has their family members and loved ones, it is as damning a morality tale as one could get from Tinseltown: darker than a 40s Film Noir, more fantastic than the Moonwalk he thrilled us with in ’83. Need I mention that it was all too plausible? It was. I had that same sinking feeling with which one receives all bad news. Regardless of my age (I am in my 50s) I felt a certain portion of my innocence draining away as the film progressed, and a sad, slow sense of loss has ensued. I wondered if I could still listen to Michael without feeling poisoned? It only took a couple of visits outside—his music is ubiquitous. So I guess I can. But this new consciousness has replaced the old one, and a certain buzziness his lovely songs once produced is gone.
American Pop music has always been a magician’s trick, a coercion into the fantasies of your particular moment. My first coming of age was the reign of AM radio in the mid 70s. Nestled between the big productions of Elton John and singer songwriters were the dreamy, beautifully executed country pop songs of that era: songs like Orlean’s wistful, romantic “Dance With Me” (1975) or Player’s “Baby Come Back” (1977). Like the plush, lime green shag carpet in our living room, songs in the 1970s seemed designed to transport you, to swathe you. There was a lushness. As the decade progressed this plush vibe found a perfectly delivery system as disco music crept out of the clubs: songs like Van McCoy’s “The Hustle” (1975), KC and The Sunshine Band’s “Shake, Shake, Shake (Shake Your Booty) (1976), and The Bee Gees’ “You Should Be Dancing’” (1977) just lodged themselves in your brain. It was the second phase of my early youth, and like a little teenaged addict I was a slave to Top 40 and these little symphonies. The pinnacle of this moment was Michael’s “Rock With You” (1979) and Olivia Newton-John’s “Magic” (1980). Both are masterpieces of their kind; syncopated pop fantasies.
And then I got cool. Gary Numan’s “Cars” (1979) was a pivotal single. This planted a seed that stoked an appetite for electronic music that dominated the 80s and my college years. The music I was falling in love with by necessity took on more of an edge: The Smiths’ lead singer Morrissey wailing “How Soon Is Now” (1985), a nasal spoken-word lyric from Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant asking “What Have I done To Deserve This?” (1987), or the serial gloom of all of Depeche Mode’s Violator (1988). In the 90s Acid House and Rave Culture took me to another level, a higher high; these long, druggy musical trips took me further out than I could have imagined in the 70s. However the plush pop song still dominated my tastes, inspired by those first 70s singles. I needed to feel music first inside, then out. It was always the synthetic rush I was searching for.
I love music, so I have had many dalliances and affairs over the decades, but very few true loves. George Michael and Pet Shop Boys both evinced a kaleidoscopic sense of pop sounds, and an unashamed love of the plush moment. They kept my search for soulful soundscapes fulfilled (and still do). Ah but the heart searches onward. In 2008 I discovered the band Friendly Fires performing one of their first singles (“Paris”) on late night television and immediately downloaded the album. Something was up. I had a feeling I had not had since college—full immersion, bliss, transport. The self-titled debut was wonderful: edgy with punk, emo, and rock and roll vibes, but they couldn’t fool me: there was also a serious feeling for the sumptuous heart of pop and disco. I enjoyed many hours of pleasure before 2011’s Pala arrived. On the record lead singer Ed McFarlane displayed a true talent for the old-fashioned, soaring pop song. “Live Those Days Tonight” scaled new sonic heights: wild amounts of vocal overlays, propulsion, and echo. The album also had a tight set of 11 songs, each song contrasting the one before it, creating cohesion: themes of soaring and crashing swirled throughout the record. Coursing through the record's thundering drums, vocals and synths one did indeed take a journey. Like all good trips there was plenty to savor afterwards. Press play and you’d get another hit, another trip.
Eight long years have come and gone since Pala; the group went on hiatus for at least six of them. After a languorous, ambient side project form Ed and guitarist Edd Gibson (The Pattern Forms’ Peel Away The Ivy) in 2017 there were rumblings and then confirmation that the band would reunite.
“Love Like Waves” debuted in 2018, followed by a dribble of leaked songs (is this the new business model?—because it sucks). Something was off for me—I had not gotten my fix. I wondered if, outside of nostalgia, the trips we take on our musical highways are harder to arrange as we get older? I was fully despairing of the quality of the record when Inflorescent dropped this August. Maybe I was despairing that I had taken all the musical journeys I was allotted by now. Maybe I was despairing that in our robo-tuned present we no longer feel the need to transcend the now with the swathes of pulsating love that informed my youthful education in the 70s, then 80s, then 90s. But I was wrong. I found myself eagerly purchasing the record the midnight before it came out, skipping around the tracks (again, a tidy 11, suggesting a thematic unity) before landing on Track 4: “Sleeptalking”. Against a sneaky synth line, Ed sings:
I'm deep in insomnia
And you're dreaming by my side (Dreaming)
Nocturnal fantasies beyond my sanity
Maybe I'm dramatic, but dramatic's on my mind
And once again, I was soaring. I hit play on “Sleeptalking” again and again. I was back inside the pop moment; I was astral projecting. I was unabashedly indulgent. The plushness was back, it was right there in the song, a product of a serious romanticism:
Is it black pearls or emeralds?
Or could it be another guy?
Thoughts are running wild
Then I hear you say out loud
What I've been waiting for …
Finally! Within the tight disco of the cut there was a deep respect for the craft of the perfectly constructed pop tune. A sense of relief had come over me. How strange that I had thought my heart could grow old!
With Inflorescent Friendly Fires has once again (after Pala) created a considered set list, each song revolving around youth’s eternal push against the clock to achieve their moment: their dance, their kiss, their shot. Where Pala explored the themes of crashing and emerging, in Inflorescent the urgency is in romance, youthful glory, and the dangers laying at the edge of maturity. The album synthesizes the fizzy 70s disco, the hard electronica of the 80s, and the Rave vibes of the 90s. Gone are the insistent drums of Pala, or any hint of rock and roll preening. It is, in short, exactly the kind of music I was raised on: pure pop (for now people, or not). This is the kind of music that informed me as I was growing up, and that I desperately need right now: a form completely unafraid of the blissful moment. How clever that the whole album is also a unified expression of this instinct. Eight years to make a record this good? I would say it was worth it.
On my breaks from work I take a late evening walk in New York City. Of course I always bring my music (well, it lives on my phone). This week I strolled out onto the avenue with Inflorescent to give it a closer inspection. Coming back from the walk, headed down 6th Avenue, the tenth track, “Almost Midnight”, was in full flower, and I felt that Ed McFarlane was summing up in thought and rhythm my exact predicament. The beats soared, and I found the music so transporting, and for me, perfect, that I started to cry. It was still there, that need that artists have to express beauty: the eternal push for transcendence. And right before the ecstatic drop in the song, Ed sang:
Go in for the kiss
Now it's almost midnight
Go in for the kiss
I got so much riding on this
And one more time I got to fly on the wings of a song. With my old school iPhone earphones plugged in, the kid in me suddenly felt alive and well. He felt like everything was good. Everything was all right.