THE CARS: HEARTBEAT CITY (1984)
1) Hello Again; 2) Looking For Love; 3) Magic; 4) Drive; 5) Stranger Eyes; 6) You Might Think; 7) It's Not The Night; 8) Why Can't I Have You; 9) I Refuse; 10) Heartbeat City.
I must say, it still feels good to be so completely free of Eighties nostalgia that it is possible to openly state — Heartbeat City sucks from start to finish, despite being such an immaculately crafted product. I can enjoy some of the individual songs, and I can sometimes find things of deeper value behind the superficial pop gloss, but on a general, simplified scale Heartbeat City is a musical disaster. All of the Cars' records have «dated» to a certain extent, but none of them more so than this collection of bright, shiny mid-Eighties pop nuggets, fashioned so exclusively for the sake of commercial success and nothing else.
The band took a lengthy break after Shake It Up, during which Ocasek and Hawkes released their first solo albums and also had themselves plenty of free time to take a good look at the world's trending directions. Two trends that seemed obvious were: (a) «guitar bands are on their way out» with synth-pop and digital technology on the rise; (b) MTV power. Consequently, once they finally got together for the next effort in mid-1983, enlisting Robert "Mutt" Lange to produce the album (you can't go wrong with a producer who was able to cover even AC/DC and Def Leppard in gold!) and relocating to London for the sessions (European flavor!), the two most important things were — get rid of most of the guitars in favor of synthesizers and electronic drums; and produce as many videos as possible, most of which, it has to be admitted, were far more innovative and fun than the songs they were supposed to accompany.
Oh sure, Heartbeat City has plenty of hooks — cold, mechanical, robotic ones; not cold enough to be Kraftwerk-icy and haunting, though, but simply cold enough to feel as plastic and lifeless as the opening ghostly vocals that greet you with their "hello... hello again". The entire track is a mix of several different, but equally simplistic synth parts (the main eight-note synth riff sounds like two robots vomiting in sync), toughened up with power metal guitar chords in the chorus, and no amount of tragedy in Ocasek's voice can salvage the garbage melody (which is garbage not because it is synth-pop, but because it is bad synth-pop: where Depeche Mode could tune their electronics to convey sadness, disillusionment, or even horror, ʽHello Againʼ and its ilk just sound like repetitive beeps and bleeps).
Uptempo pop songs like ʽLooking For Loveʼ and ʽYou Might Thinkʼ simply sound awful, and I would never accept arguments like «well, The Cars sounded like everybody sounded back in 1978, and now they just sound like everybody sounded in 1984 — what's the big deal?», because not everybody sounded like this in 1984, but only everybody obsessed with capitalizing on the latest trends, and the latest trends were «more synthesizers, less intelligence»: ʽYou Might Thinkʼ rides almost entirely on one five-note keyboard sequence (once you've heard the first two seconds of the song, believe me, you've heard pretty much everything), and relates to ʽGood Times Rollʼ in about the same way in which a Britney Spears «pop» song would relate to a Beatles one. Why the heck did it chart? Simple — because of the video, which was one of the first videos to use computer graphics, and combined computer effects with sleaziness to perfection. And don't even get me started on ʽMagicʼ, with its three-chord power riff and arena-rock chorus that sounds like very bad Boston. Was it really that hard to invest just a little more time and energy in such a thing as composing?
Ultimately, I count two out of ten songs that still have a magic touch to them after all these years. I should be hating ʽDriveʼ as a synth-heavy adult contemporary ballad, deeply derivative from 10cc's ʽI'm Not In Loveʼ; truth is, I have always been enchanted by Orr's vocal part — and the synth textures and ethereal overdubbed harmonies agree with it very well. Unlike most of everything else here, this track actually has soul, and plenty of psychologism: somehow, it just captures that «late night depression» vibe to perfection, and if you're ever in need of a little seance of self-pity, locked all alone in your room and stuff, ʽDriveʼ should be among the first tracks on that mixtape. Alas, Orr never replicates that success — already on his second ballad, ʽWhy Can't I Have Youʼ, he sounds plastic, manneristic, and theatrical in comparison.
The only other track that redeems the record is ʽHeartbeat Cityʼ itself (a.k.a. ʽJackiʼ on the original US edition of the album). Uptempo and electronic like everything else, it is actually a deeply melancholic ballad that takes the «fun side» of the album and turns it on its head — the lyrics are somewhat enigmatic (nobody really knows who Jacki actually is, and why is it that everything depends on her presence or absence), but the feeling is quite unambiguous: one of being trapped, without hope of escape or change, in «Heartbeat City». You can just think of it as a song of lost love, or, like I like to do, you can expand it to include a bit of that old Roxy Music-influenced melancholic decadence — looking for true feeling and passion in a hedonistic-materialistic world ("there's a place for everyone under Heartbeat City's golden sun", etc.). In any case, this is the only track on the entire record where the looped synth pattern actually conveys emotion and perfectly agrees with Ocasek's sorrowful vocal part.
It would be useless to give the album a thumbs down — it has pretty much passed on to legend, and it will take yet another wave of general disgust (this time, retrospective, which is much harder) for generic Eighties production and commercialism to give it a proper spanking, which a single negative rating could hardly hope to trigger. More importantly, I find it hard to condemn an album which still contains occasional flashes of inspiration and even genius: ʽDriveʼ and ʽHeartbeat Cityʼ are unimpeachable, and show that The Cars certainly did not «run out of talent» by 1983 — they just let themselves be sidetracked with the temptation of getting back on that elusive cutting edge. But «great album»? Come on now, it's a frickin' sellout — look the word up in encyclopaedias, and eventually you'll find a certain Peter Phillips art piece illustrating it.