Back when I was first discovering music, good pop was relatively easy to come by. Everything, to me, was new and fresh, enticing and electric. I’d never heard anything like the New Kids’ “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” before and I didn’t want it to end. What could be cooler than five guys hitting the dance floor (or the far groovier abandoned warehouse) to jump and jive with the coolest dance moves dressed in the latest fashions?
In the last decade or so, I’ve learned the answer to that question, yet my love of pop continues. But, while the New Kids, as well as the likes of Take That, New Edition and Debbie Gibson were reinventing popular music purely for the teen set, today’s radio wasteland of pop starlets and boy-bands has significantly altered that love. It’s become increasingly difficult to find good pop music, and by “good” I mean fun, with a bit of an edge to set it apart from the rest of today’s usual mush. Every now and then, one of those pop starlets or boy-bands will surprise me and deliver just what I’m looking for. Recent examples include NSync’s aggressive “Bye, Bye, Bye” and Britney’s delusional “Overprotected.” Both are obvious dance numbers with tireless beats and spellbinding hooks, though the reason I enjoy them is simply their ability to bring a smile to my face.
Darren Hayes, once half of Australian super-duo Savage Garden, is aware of the difficulties of creating fun and interesting pop music. He succeeded with Garden’s self-titled debut to bring a futuristic style into his music with illusionary lyrics designed to impress, following it up with a second album dealing with his divorce and subsequent feelings of disillusionment and personal sacrifice. Both albums proved the guys were capable of challenging musical styles, simultaneously creating dance-worthy smashes and sing-able tunes with concentrated meaning.
Following the demise of Savage Garden last year, I waited with any fan to see just what Hayes would come up with minus his long-time musical collaborator. As a charming show-off and born performer, it was unlikely Hayes would be comfortable out of the spotlight for longer than was absolutely necessary. Thus, barely a year later, Hayes’s solo album has arrived with Spin — a good pop record. From opener “Strange Relationship” onwards, the album is a hip and happy jumble of addictive pop tunes both unashamedly cute and, at times, quite serious. And while the album reeks of Hayes’s ’80s pop influences like Michael Jackson, Madonna and George Michael, he uses these obvious parallels to create magic.
Jackson’s influence is evident on “Heart Attack” (rumoured to be about Savage Garden’s bitter split), especially the song’s lyrical (and vocal) similarities to Jackson’s aggravated damning of phony allies and tabloid gossip on HIStory. “Dirty” borrows from the sexuality of later George Michael tunes such as “Fastlove” and “Outside” in that it provides the listener with blatant pieces of information rather than relying on subtlety to get the message across. “If you want to / I can be dirty too / I can spin you around / Lift you and go down,” Hayes sings, to a barrage of keyboards, drum beats and futuristic blipping noises behind him. The song never stays on one path, zipping from love song to rap song to sexual ode in a matter of seconds. “You make me wanna bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, / Shut the blinds, / Baby, let the door slam” is sung whip-quick and with such confidence that it’s a hard song not to like — if not for the hellishly cute cheese of it all, then for the unabashed lyrical experimentation which Hayes’s expert vocals easily control.
While many of the quicker songs on the album are overtly sexual, it’s the ballads (excepting “Insatiable”) that see Hayes doubting and debating with himself as to how he should act in a relationship. “Strange Relationship” is a slinky number in which his lilting vocals maintain the right amount of softness as he questions his role in an on-again-off-again coupling. “I Miss You” and “I Can’t Ever Get Enough Of You” (sounding like an update of Jackson’s “Human Nature”) continue that theme, again taking full advantage of Hayes’s ability to create pop ballads that rarely delve into the saccharine. These songs are simple in their respective messages, using lyrics suited more to an adult audience, conveying genuine feelings of love and acceptance.
The standout tracks on the album, however, are “Creepin’ Up On You” and “Crush (1980 Me)”. The first song’s use of glorious orchestral strings to a pop beat is very cool, so much so that it gives unusual strength to the run-of-the-mill “no one else can love you like I do” lyrics. “Crush (1980 Me)” goes a step further, becoming one of my new favourite songs, mostly in that it contains the cutest chorus I’ve heard since those New Kids days. Hayes borrows from “I Want You” — his first single with Savage Garden — again employing futuristic sounds and speed-of-light singing in a song that pays homage to those who’ve come before him. It’s basically a shout out to his favourite ’80s icons like Cyndi Lauper, Eurythmics, Steven Spielberg, Jackson, and even Vanilla Ice. We learn about the 1980s Darren Hayes with a penchant for acid-washed jeans, blonde highlights, watching Miami Vice and gadding about with his “boombox.”
The title track, “Spin”, is reminiscent of Savage Garden’s “Affirmation” in that current social issues are raised and dissected. This time, Hayes suggests an answer to many of those problems: music. “Your problems don’t exist when music feels like this,” he sings, summing up his artistic position that his music is meant to soothe, to relax and for his audience to enjoy. He’s not out to shock or to prove himself as anything other than a talented singer/songwriter. Of his debut solo effort, the man has reason to be proud, and with all that is right with the album, (to quote the man himself on “Dirty”), it could be “the gem of the year”.