THE BOOMTOWN RATS: V DEEP (1982)
1) He Watches It All; 2) Never In A Million Years; 3) Talking In Code; 4) The Bitter End; 5) The Little Death; 6) A Storm Breaks; 7) Up All Night; 8) House On Fire; 9) Charmed Lives; 10) Skin On Skin; 11) Say Hi To Mick; 12) No Hiding Place*.
There are at least three different versions of this album: original UK release, original US release, and a new CD reissue from 2005 with a strange choice of track reshuffling — for instance, the original opened with the bombastic, Phil Spector-ish ʽNever In A Million Yearsʼ, but on the reissue, the first track is the more chamberish (at least, in the first part, until the big drums kick in) ʽHe Watches It Allʼ. Go figure. Also, the first letter of the title is the Roman number five, not the letter V, alluding both to the fact of this being the band's fifth album and the fact that they were now a five-piece, as the band's guitar player Gerry Cott split off.
In the end, it looks like all these different trivia about the album present more food for the reviewer than the music itself, which continues Geldof's gradual slide into blandness, though without exacerbating it. There is plenty to like on V Deep — just not much to rave about. In purely objective terms, the album might even be preferable to its predecessor, because (a) the band embraces an even larger number of styles, ranging all the way from lounge jazz to synth-pop, but (b) the band does not engage in any particularly annoying embarrassments, for instance, does not try to pass for a bunch of roving Africans as they did on ʽMood Mamboʼ.
And yet, the overall impression is that they continue to struggle in their attempts to grab our attention. It is hard to understand why it is so — I mean, if you dissect the album's second single, ʽHouse On Fireʼ, it is a pretty complex and (theoretically) catchy reggae number. There's clicky percussion, quirky keyboards, jungle harmonies, a merry brass riff in the bridge, some hidden menace in the descending melody of the chorus — what's not to like? But something is clearly missing that could take the song by the hand and lead it across the bridge that separates «decently written» from «soul-inflaming». Perhaps that something is a general sense of purpose: as it often is with the Rats, I am not getting what they want me to feel and how they want me to go about it. And I do not mean the lyrics (you try and decipher what "she's cruel as a pig but we love her like a house on fire" is supposed to signify), but more like the whole thing put together. Is this an angry song? A sad song? An irony-drenched dance number? With ʽMary Of The 4th Formʼ or with ʽRat Trapʼ or with ʽI Don't Like Mondaysʼ, you wouldn't be asking these questions. With ʽHouse On Fireʼ, there's certainly more questions than answers, and I seriously doubt that even Geldof himself could answer most of these.
On the other hand, I still feel a bitter irony that ʽHouse On Fireʼ, when it was released, charted higher (UK No. 24) than the previous single, ʽNever In A Million Yearsʼ (UK No. 62), even though the latter is a far superior song — along with the catchier and much more melodically dense, but less serious ʽDon't Answer Meʼ by the Alan Parsons Project, it is one of the decade's better Phil Spector imitations, driven by a tremendously passionate Geldof vocal as he uses all the bombast to prop up his personal manifesto: "I know I'll never let / Those self-defeating fears / Spoil those golden years / These days that pass us by so slow". And even if the main keyboard melody of the song is fairly simplistic, by concentrating on the solemnity of the oath and the stateliness of the arrangements, they manage to pull it off fairly well. But you probably wouldn't want to dance to it — and singles are for wiggling your butt, not for standing upright and holding your hand out in a respectful salute to your idol, so the fussy, but pointless reggae bit won over the slow, ponderous, but meaningful wall-of-sound exercise.
Other than that, they are actually all over the place: bass-heavy, fast-paced synth-pop (ʽTalking In Codeʼ), acoustic-based, finger-poppin' light jazz entertainment (ʽLittle Deathʼ), bombastic art-funk (ʽA Storm Breaksʼ), another Talking Heads clone song (ʽCharmed Livesʼ) and so on. The only thing that ties them all together is the same puzzling effect as the one on ʽHouse On Fireʼ: it's all laid out to be good, but somehow, it isn't. The darkness ain't dark enough, the madness ain't mad enough, the humor ain't humorous enough, and all the musical parts, taken separately or collectively, do not transform into grappling emotional hooks. You can clearly see how much ʽCharmed Livesʼ owes to Remain In Light — but you do not sense the same «grim determination» that made Remain In Light such an epoch-defining masterpiece. Perhaps it is simply the result of poor coordination within the band: where all the individual Heads were clearly able to «get» Byrne's artistic intentions, here everybody seems to be simply playing the notes, not much more. You kind of get the feeling that, just like Gerry Cott who finally had had enough, all these guys would only be too happy to go back to their «pub-rock» days of the mid-1970s and just bash away with simple, but effective rock'n'roll. But they are not given the permission.
In time — in a very long time — some of the songs may grow on me, and if you throw in Geldof's ongoing search for new feelings and occasionally irritating, but still frequently insightful lyrics, V Deep is certainly not a total failure. But neither is it a misunderstood masterpiece, and on the whole, the fact that the Boomtown Rats were rapidly losing in the great war of New Wave Innovators is pretty hard to deny: their commercial decline was not due to the fact that the music was much too complex or challenging for the general public, but actually more due to the fact that the public ceased to feel the spark. And now, more than thirty years later, I, too, have a certain difficulty locating that spark.