Whenever former enfant terrible Holly Johnson is mentioned certain ‘facts’ immediately spring up. Once the provocative and sexually daring frontman of Frankie goes to Hollywood -the second band to have their first three releases hit the top spot: (Relax, Two Tribes, The Power of Love). After being diagnosed with HIV in the early 1990s he remains an individual who refuses to be defined by who he is or what he has; resolutely Liverpudlian, queer and still here.
He’s a character who’s always had more in his armoury than been given credit for with a European artiste sensibility and fittingly ‘Europa’ is Johnson’s first album in fifteen years, a summation of just what he’s been doing and always done, idiosyncratically opining on affairs of the heart, loss and the geo-political pantomime with no punchlines.
Featuring Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera on nine songs the album opens with ‘Follow your heart’ which is all LO-NRG with the trite ‘follow your heart and your life will start to make some sense …love will come to your defence … love will be the consequence’. So far so Hallmark. This is the weakest on the album. Next up is ‘In and out of love’ (is he trying to tell us something?) as he wrangles, ‘your heart has had enough … forgive you…forgive me’
‘So much it hurts’ tells of the gut-wrenching ache that unspoken crushes from a distance generate
There’s nothing I would rather do
standing close to you
snatching sideways glances
dreaming of romances
he remains great at rhyming couplets and wordplay, ‘ride that river of denial’.
‘Europa’ was originally written with Greek psy-nth pioneer Vangelis in 1990. The old, divided Europe had collapsed with the promise of a new, more harmonious union on the agenda. What did we end up with? A bureaucratic, Orwellian super state with identikit uniform across individual states and perpetual wars ‘… no more nations, continent urbanisation …wars, down endless corridors, we must beware the double men who double dare’.
The result is a Britain (or is it UK) with a faded presence, jaded notions of identity and consumed up by junk culture and throwaway consumables. The song has great hanging vocals like David Bowie and comes across as a ‘Two Tribes’ for the millennial crusaders.
‘Glorious’, written with Manchester mainstay Vini Reilly, has some wonderful tremolo guitar at the start that goes all Depeche Modeish and has Holly crooning ‘it’s a glorious love, comes from heavens above’. ‘Hold on tight’ sounds like Yazoo’s ‘Don’t go’ mangled with Whigfield’s ‘Saturday Night’. Make of that what you will. The mash-up no one saw coming.
The sun will shine again’ is adventurous musically, evocative of the post-punk appropriation of the 1970s German motorik sound (e.g. Kraftwerk, Can, Neu) in feel and texture.
The familiar swooning vox-box is in fine fettle veering between spewing and rasping although the overall tone is of a set of old fragments given a touch of lippy and a blow-dry, but, it’s good to have him back.