All Fall Down (1982) ***1/2
The difficult artsy third album in which formerly supremely catchy new-wave synth-rockers downplay the shiny hookcraft in favor of denser, more experimental soundscapes: if the first two Sound albums were analogous to The Cars and Candy-O respectively, this is Borland & Co.'s Panorama. But as the Sound were nowhere near the commercial big leagues of the Cars (outside of the Low Countries, apparently), the resulting excursion into impenetrable non-commerciality resulted in the Sound being dropped by their major label, who initially balked at releasing it at all. And yes, on first and even fourth listen, the tunes do seem too indirect and the hooks too subtly buried in texture to come across to the listener at all - where are the killer choruses? The surging anthemic fist ravers? But as sometimes is the case with self-consciously dense and difficult albums, the material slowly reveals itself and bustles into your hedgerow - a slow-burner this album 'tis. The hooks and melodies are intact; the listener simply must exert his ears a bit more. And this is the Sound: it's only by comparison with their first two records, which defined 'immediately blazeningly hooky' that this is uncommercially less than highly listenable. After all, "Party of the Mind," (a thematic rewrite of the Fabs' "There's a Place") stands as frothingly boppy a pop single as anything they've put out previous. It's an anomaly that sounds like nothing else on the record, however. The title track that opens the album sets the tone, as dense throbs of rhythm pummel oppressively on as Borland chants snatches of apocalyptic nursery rhymes to a tune that could at best be described as rudimentary. The music is denser and more intricate than the relatively thin lightness of From the Lion's Mouth, which does make it more interesting on a textural level even if the songs aren't up the same level. Emotionally, Borland seems sadder and more despondent, with his significantly lowered vocals mouthing declamations more ponderous and ominous (this may be due to a production error - whatever, it does make his vocals more powerful and distinctive). If the first two albums twinned like a synth-ier English counterpart to concurrent U2, this presages mid-'90s Radiohead at points, particularly the experimental 7-minute centerpiece of side two, "Glass and Smoke," - almost defiantly tuneless and structureless, it twists and roils around on a bed of rudimentary, repetitive four-note bass and dislocated kettle drums recorded in the next door closet, interrupted by careening shards of guitar noise, as the climax resolves into Borland bellowing, "I'm not stupid!" Not exactly my favorite track - intentionally rough listening, 'tis - but certainly the most sonically adventurous and interesting. The reissue adds three bonus tracks, one of which - the self-descriptive, Wire-y instrumental "The One and a Half Minute Song," - is the definition of a throwaway. "Sorry" and "As Feeling Dies," however, are enough of a piece with the preceding album that you'll barely notice the transition, with the former perhaps finding Borland singing in too low of a key for comfort, and the latter even more apocalyptically depressing than anything else on a quite apocalyptically depressing album (geez, just look at the title): "You kill me with your words / I kill you with my eyes," threatens the chorus. Why weren't these guys as big as Haircut 100? Remind me again?