Friday, July 20, 2012
Wipe Off The Dust: Re-Introducing Terence Trent D'Arby's Hardline
What is 'the hardline'? Ask Terence Trent D'Arby because he's experienced it and he's introducing it to us---or maybe not because he doesn't go by that name anymore these days (it's Sananda Maitreya now). Still, whatever, Introducing The Hardline According To Terence Trent D'Arby (say that five times fast) is D'Arby's 1987 debut album and it's probably one of the best debuts, no, albums to emerge in all of the decade of the 1980's.
25 years ago looked to be a man's, man's world---in the music sense. Alexander O'Neal's Hearsay, George Michael's Faith, Prince's Sign O' The Times, Michael Jackson's Bad (which we will discuss at a later date), and The Hardline made appearances and raised the bar of machismo. Like George Michael's step into solo-dom and independence, D'Arby's Hardline is his breakout, and like Faith, it doesn't sound like a debut. It's too perfect to be limited thus.
With a voice that feels Sam Cooke in some places and a similar gruff gusto as Jackson, D'Arby was a vocality dream, and his attention to straying outside the boxes of what is construed as soul music had him be on par with the likes of Prince and made him an exciting addition to that fold. With singles like "Sign Your Name", "Dance Little Sister", and the #1 best-seller of "Wishing Well", Hardline went on to become a five-time platinum selling album. It fared better in the UK as D'Arby was a British-based artist at the time, but it still wasn't being ignored in the US.
With hit singles and an ambitious debut, the New York native was well on his way to snatching the spotlights away from the likes of Jackson and the Purple Sultan, yet, D'Arby's popularity slipped n' slide when the decade came to a close, and Hardline became a misbegotten effort that erroneously marked D'Arby as a one-album wonder.
So what happened?
Well, D'Arby did the numero uno superstar boner killer: He got arrogant. He boasted rag-tag about Hardline besting The Beatles' 1967 classic Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and well, you just don't make those comparisons---especially, when you're an artist just starting out. Pretty much, you should either just shut your mouth or keep on shuffling down to the employment line, right? Note that this type of braggadocious attitude from a male artist (excuse me, a black male artist) wasn't exactly getting fruit baskets as it predates the era of boastful, conceited, and sometimes bratty nature of celebrated Hip-Hop and R&B stars a la Kanye West and Chris Brown. Plus D'Arby wasn't Prince---thus the quota for vanity stricken male artists has been filled for the time being.
D'Arby's next 'fault' was releasing an experimental question mark called, Neither Fish Nor Flesh, two years later, to where he distanced himself further from the pack and distanced himself from fans of his work on Hardline. While adventurous in composition, Neither Fish was indulgent and did nothing to erase the salty words he had rambled years ago---it just emphasized it as the album seemed a big ol' middle finger to conformity and to those who didn't agree with him. And we all know what happens to people who defy conformity...By the time he released the much more accessible duo of Symphony Or Damn in 1993 and Vibrator in 1995, not many were keeping tabs, and it's a shame considering he became exceptionally better with those two progressive albums.
As much as I admire D'Arby's creativity and his gall to not be boxed in by 'Soul-cial Norms' by way of his later efforts, Hardline is how you get your foot in the door and it was a debut album that should have (to some extent) carried him mighty far, actually further than where he got.
It all begins with hit single "Wishing Well". "Wishing Well" was unique in it's layout which made it such a palpable hit. It creeps in with it's oddball verses and then a jovial chorus. It's really one-of-a-kind, and hard to really prescribe a neat label too. With "Wishing Well" a change in the soul music climate occurred. It wasn't New Jack, nor was it the accessible genre-crossing dance music of Michael Jackson that was dominating the radio. Dare we say it was the early crackle of the 90's Neo-Soul movement? Time would tell.
While "Wishing Well" is D'Arby's best known hit, the rest of the album didn't fall apart after that. The album opens up boldly with the religious and socially conscious themed, "If You All Get To Heaven", and it's crashing percussion and staggering lyrical cries feels like a forceful procession is on the move. The song sounds bigger than one person, but that is D'Arby for you.
The arresting "Sign Your Name" mirrored Sade in it's style, but it's overall approach is one D'Angelo and Maxwell would later pick up and carry in later years. Same can be said for the gorgeous, "Let's Go Forward" as it charms in it's romantic theatrics and glides like Marvin Gaye in it's diction
Gut guitar rattles the groove of the touching narrative "I'll Never Turn My Back On You (Father Words)" while "Seven More Days" continues on the Blues front and features some excellent growls and vocal runs from D'Arby that are not to be missed. He's not all reflective and moody, as the perky "Dance Little Sister" is instant fun and a neat mimicry of James Brown.
"If You Let Me Stay" snatches a feeling that is part Jackie Wilson, part Motown as it grooves and finger-snaps along in it's infectious sing-a-long. Speaking of Motown, D'Arby heightens "Who's Lovin' You" from sappy teeny-bopper candy to a rousing grown-man's declaration. The Smokey Robinson penned classic has never sounded so authentic and so raw (sorry, young Michael and En Vogue)---you literally believe it when it comes out of D'Arby's mouth.
Somewhat forgotten is "As Yet Untitled" a nearly six-minute acapella that washes D'Arby's pristine vocals in the spotlight. It's a bit heavy-handed, somewhat pretentious in it's lyrics, heck there are times where even I skip it because of how loaded it is, but this is where D'Arby proves his talent and it is stunning if you immerse yourself in it. D'Arby would flex more of his poetic acapella whims as 1989's excellent "I Have Faith In These Desolate Times" proves that point, but this is where it begins and what confirms it all.
To refrain, Introducing The Hardline According To Terence Trent D'Arby is an exceptional debut that is an prime example of the girth and creative drive of an artist who deserved more credit than he received. Taken lightly this album shouldn't be and it's one of those moments in Soul culture that I wish could be replicated in the now, but so few artists today rarely take on this type of challenge. Hardline may not be bigger or receive much cultural clout than Sgt. Pepper's, but to me in my little world, subjectively, it pretty much is.