Gary Numan. You probably know his name, though you probably don't know his music beyond one song. The first time I ever heard of Numan, I was about ten years old. I was watching television, and an ad for one of those K-Tel albums came on, featuring Numan's "Cars". I was a bit freaked out - but then again, I didn't know about electronica at that tender age.
Numan has always been a practicioner in the electronica field, though it was mistakenly labeled "new wave" back in the '80s. And while Numan has continued to record all these years, his work might have remained in obscurity had it not been for Fear Factory, who covered "Cars" (and had Numan sing with Burton C. Bell) on their last album.
Numan's latest disc, Pure, features the Brit rocker still honing his craft, and occasionally making a big noise with it. Pity that much of the music isn't as accessible and listener-friendly. Not that I would have wanted Numan to keep recording in the style of The Pleasure Principle; that would have been too predictable.
In fact, if you pick this up expecting to hear "Cars Circa 2001," this music will send you screaming for the exits. Numan seems to move more into a Nine Inch Nails vein, with the sparse instrumentation and the dark, depressing lyrics. Frankly, I give the man a lot of credit for plowing such a musical path and taking a risk.
What Pure lacks, though, is a thread that would suck the listener in. Indeed, part of the problem is the new musical style for Numan; it doesn't present itself as being accessible. I found that, on the first few listens, I couldn't get past "One Perfect Lie," the fourth song on the disc, without giving up and starting all over again. I wasn't getting something, and I didn't know what.
The second problem is Numan's vocals are surprisingly buried in the mix. When he really sings out (something he's quite capable of, and something I wish he'd done more often), his lyrics ring out like a bell. But most of the time, Numan sounds like a cross between Al Pacino and Billy Corgan, almost mumbling the words on sons like "Rip," "My Jesus" and the title track.
This is really a shame, because Pure seemed to have a deeper message that most listeners probably won't get simply because they can't hear it. A disc which deals with loss, both of someone Numan cared for and a belief in a caring God, the lyrics to the songs on Pure pack an emotional punch. (It could almost be argued that this is a "concept" album; I'd differ slightly and just say that the songs do tie together, but there is not a story being told.) If you read the liner notes and follow the lyric sheet as you listen to the songs, things become a little clearer. But the rawest emotional nerve would be hearing Numan break through the instrumentation and have his vocals heard... and unless this disc is remixed, that just isn't going to happen.
It's a shame, really. Pure could have easily become Numan's masterpiece, and even threatened Trent Reznor's grip on industrial alternative rock leadership. Had a little more time been spent on bringing Numan's vocals to the forefront, this could have been an excellent disc. (I'd have thrown in a little more guitar work as well... but that's just me.) Instead, Pure tries to wade through over-mixing of the instruments and leaves the vocals to try to fight their way to the surface. If only they had succeeded.