A lot of really terrible things about the ‘80s are coming back – austerity politics, acid wash, a Top Gun sequel nobody asked for. On the upside, we might finally be able to rectify one of the major musical mistakes of that decade, when we didn’t give Howard Jones the critical respect he deserved. On Transform, his first album since 2015’s instrumental Engage, the “What is Love” hitmaker returns stronger than ever.
Transform is remarkably consistent to Jones’ lush brand of synthpop. Right from the top, “The One To Love You” feels like an unearthed ‘80s artifact in the best way, maintaining a deliciously layered complexity that is as exciting to listen to through headphones as it through dance floor speakers—even if that dance floor is your living room.
With a crunchy drum line and throbbing bass, “Take Us Higher” is like a Depeche Mode’s relentlessly upbeat cousin. “Tin Man” has a similar grounding on the percussion, with the keyboard lines doing workman-like duty on a more traditional ballad.
Lyrically, the album is a remedy to the cultural malaise the weighs down the modern soul. Jones famously sang “Things Can Only Get Better” in 1985 and it’s an attitude he maintains on Transform. But the album never falls into the cloying, everything-is-fine nature of a preschool sing-along about sharing. Rather, lyrics such as “Slap me down the four-eyed clown/will only come back strong/ride through the snow and ice/to prove the whole world wrong” from “The Eagle Will Fly Again” are tailor-made for the montage that plays in your head while you’re running at the gym, driving to a job interview or just indulging in some much-needed self-care.
“Beating Mr. Neg” is a little heavy, with a slinky, zebra-striped backbeat that sounds like the opening titles of an arcade racing game, but the firework flourish of the chorus serves as a bridge between the eras, sounding more The 1975 than Kraftwerk. The simple piano coda is a nice touch.
“I can make a zillion bucks, be a YouTube trendsetter, 40 million Twitters online…” Jones sings on the title track. “I’ve got to change what’s in my head, have a new take on the world.” Jones knows he may not be what The Kids Are Into, but he’s not dissing them and he’s not down on himself. Rather, he’s comfortable enough in his craft to try out new sounds while trusting his instincts. It’s this kind of honesty that really elevates this song – and this album.
The bubble-pop “Be My Own Hero” is a little too light to land amongst the heavier hitters like “Take Us Higher” and “Beating Mr. Neg,” and the Windham Hill flute line on “At The Speed of Love” is a bit of a downer, even if it does conjure back to “Transform.” Every album needs a ballad, but this one falls strictly on the B-side sense of things.
And, of course, just as it opened, the album closes with a banger, “Stay With Me,” with its sharp, right-angle beats and a chorus that sounds like the gospel choir at the First Church of Robots.
It’s always a gamble for a musician to fall back into the orbit he’s known for. At worst, at sounds stale and lazy. But at it’s best, well, it sounds like Transform, a balance of what is familiar and innovative, new magic from old spells.