When this Essex, England New Wave band was last in a position where it might’ve been considered relevant, the kids were still listening to Joy Division, Gary Numan, and Duran Duran. Lead vocalist Robbie Grey – the group’s only surviving original member – has seen Modern English through modest commercial success, extended dormancy, and numerous lineup changes in its three decade run. Now back again after a 14-year hiatus, Grey looks to recapture the zeitgeist of the act’s heyday with Soundtrack, an eleven song LP that will likely have some people nostalgically referencing the early years of the Reagan administration. These were, after all, the same dudes who gave MTV one of its earliest hits with the strident pop gem, “I Melt With You.”
That single and other early standout tracks like 1981’s “Smiles and Laughter” from Mesh and Lace found Modern English using its warm and jangly pop sheen as a guise for far more volatile sensibilities, and a similar formula plays itself out on Soundtrack.
On opener “It’s OK,” it’s absurdly obvious why the band used to garner all those Simple Minds comparisons. Rousing and fiery, the song sets an assured tone with a moderate rock groove, singable melodies, and a few memorable guitar licks from Steven Walker (who has been with the band almost as long as Robbie Grey). Grey himself croons in a manner not unlike Jim Kerr, particularly when belting out the song’s title.
From here though, the album quickly becomes more ominous and foreboding. “Bomb” pits vivid lyrical imagery (“Put the gun in my mouth / bomb like I never have”) against abrasive distortion and mildly psychedelic keyboard inflections from Matthew Shipley. The album’s title track – built upon a sleek drum and bass groove that takes more than six minutes to pass – sounds like the actual soundtrack to a film noir. With plenty of dirty twang on the guitar and lyrics like, “I can see it coming back for more / chasin’ me down / pushing me around / my old friend black is in town / wherever he is I will be found,” the tune is rife with cinematic color.
On a track like “Call Me,” the subject matter is sung so nonchalantly that it’s never quite clear whether Grey is going for comedy or contempt. Anchored by a mellow hip-hop groove and tremolo effects, lines such as, “Call me when you’re off your mother’s milk,” and “Where’d you get yourself that body bag?” come off unnervingly deadpan.
The remainder of the LP does a balancing act between lighthearted pop/rock and darker ambitions. “Here Comes the Failure” and “Up Here in the Brain” both follow similar trajectories, with the former coming off like a deep cut from Toad the Wet Sprocket or Gin Blossoms. “The Low Down” and “Antique Future” reside in more unsettled waters, where Shipley is given lots of latitude in layering several evocative and sometimes unsettling textures on the keyboards. “Deep Sea Diver” has enough woozy bass and murky synth effects to make you feel like you’re being pulled down into the depths, and the downward tug only gets stronger when Grey sings bits like, “You’re a deep sea diver / wreckage is your game / a fast car crash survivor.”
Soundtrack isn’t a disappointing listen by any stretch, but it’s not bursting with revolutionary concepts either. The melodies are memorable, the execution is flawless, and the instrumental arrangements are surprisingly varied. Still though, most of the songs have either a very short or shallow melodic contour, given to stop abruptly or slowly plod along with limited intensity. Yet for whatever it lacks in verve or originality, it more than makes up for with a winsome nod to the past. If you dug these guys back in 1982, this album’s a real treat.