THE CARS: PANORAMA (1980)
1) Panorama; 2) Touch And Go; 3) Gimme Some Slack; 4) Don't Tell Me No; 5) Getting Through; 6) Misfit Kid; 7) Down Boys; 8) You Wear Those Eyes; 9) Running To You; 10) Up And Down.
Perhaps Ocasek and Orr, too, had a suspicion that the magic did not work as efficiently with Candy-O as it did with The Cars — that the album gave too much of an impression that they were trying consciously and somewhat artificially to recreate what used to come so naturally and effortlessly. Either that, that is, or someone in the record business just slapped them around and said, «So you think you're some hot New Wave stuff? I'll tell you who's really New Wave — Gary Numan is! He's not even using any guitars now, that stuff's so on its way out!» And thus, as the Eighties rolled in, it was decided that the sound had to modernize.
Do not be misled, however, by the frequent descriptions of Panorama as a dark, experimental, less accessible album than the usual Carfare — sure it is somewhat darker, mainly because it relies more on bass-happy keyboards than colorful power-pop guitars, but there's nothing particularly «experimental» about it compared to the general post-punk boom of 1980, and as for less accessible, well, The Cars were always oriented at the pop market, and even at their most deviant they had to look for instrumental earworms and catchy singalong choruses. And they were never a bunch of shiny happy people anyway — feeling miserable, if not on the surface, then deep down in the core at least, was always an obligatory component of even their biggest hits.
Anyway, I do not support the school of thought according to which, in basic quality terms, The Cars took a huge dip down with Panorama, and later had to go through a period of convalescence and atonement with the more traditional Shake It Up. At least in the overall context of their career, Panorama introduces some fresh change — and, for what it's worth, the general quantity and quality of the hooks is hardly below the same parameters for Candy-O. I can certainly live with the relative lack of guitar (relative — it is still an integral part of the sound, and most of the solos are guitar-based), and I can understand the sometimes questionable stretching out of song lengths: the band is getting a little bit artsier, and that means requiring a little more time for the build-up or for the groove to achieve the proper hypnotizing effect.
For some reason, I used to really dislike the title track — probably because the nearly six-minute length got to me in the wrong way, but I eventually grew accustomed to its paranoid groove, not to mention that, finally, we have a proper album opener for a band named The Cars, as its tempo and atmosphere are so perfectly compatible with a nighttime drive on a lonely highway. At the heart of what begins as a sort of proto-Depeche Mode synth-pop runner really lies a desperately frantic classic rocker, and it's worth waiting for the climactic moment at about 3:55 into the song when Easton finally breaks through with a crazy-aggressive rock solo, unfortunately, spliced into several small bits rather than allowing the guitarist to stretch out and spill it all in one mega-burst. It is their only attempt at properly doing that «bitter-fast post-punk wail song» that everybody else was doing at the time, and there's enough atmospheric tension and individual guitar / synth hooks here to stand the competition.
The three singles from the album weren't too bad, either: ʽTouch And Goʼ is melodically astute, going from a tricky polymeter structure in the verse (that creates quite a confusing feel) to a «relieving», bouncy ska-like chorus resolution; ʽDon't Tell Me Noʼ is the album's most robotic number, with a dark (generic, though) arena-rock riff and a mechanically soulless keyboard part that agree perfectly with Orr's half-human, half-machine vocals dropping lyrical lines that eerily resemble a modern chatbot ("It's my party. You can come. Don't tell me no"); and only ʽGimme Some Slackʼ seems somewhat silly in comparison, probably because the chorus is based on a really dumb-sounding hook (bad synth tone, too), but it's still catchy.
The non-singles, largely stuck on the second side, range from ironically catchy declarations of insecurity (ʽMisfit Kidʼ) to pissed-off rockers with increased guitar presence (ʽDown Boysʼ may have Easton's angriest guitar riff ever on a Cars song) to slow, smoky ballads stuck somewhere between old-school psychedelia and new-school adult contemporary (ʽYou Wear Those Eyesʼ: not a great song, but that's one great wobbly guitar tone Easton is using for the lead parts). Not everything is equally memorable, but, really, not a single song is openly bad — the craft and light experimentation that went into every one of them seems obvious to me.
It's not as if I were heavily recommending Panorama over Candy-O, even if my tone for the previous review may seem distinctly bluer than for this one. In Spartan terms of melody and hooks, the two are quite on the same level — the only difference is that here, they are trying to construct a different atmosphere, in which they sometimes succeed and sometimes fail, but at least it provides a feeling of artistic growth, and that's good enough for me. It wasn't good enough for the public, who weren't amused and pretty much humiliated ʽTouch And Goʼ in the charts (none of that depressed shit for the US of A in the happy summer of 1980 — not at a time when we have Olivia Newton-John singing ʽMagicʼ, at least!). But it's good enough for me to confirm another thumbs up and insist that, even if one hates it, one has at least to admit that Panorama proved that The Cars were not merely a well-oiled, perfectly programmed, finalized, and locked hit-writing machine operating on one single algorithm.