The words ‘first album in two decades’ are normally, and rightfully, met with extreme trepidation. Songwriting is a sport, and those who don’t continuously hone their craft will lose their edge, and with that, their spot on the roster (the roster in this analogy being a radio station’s power rotation). Tom Bailey, former Thompson Twin and Babble member (the status of his electronic project International Observer is unclear), doesn’t care about the roster spot at this stage in his career; indeed, his new solo album Science Fiction (his debut solo album, if you can believe that) appears to exist solely for funsies, with the added benefit of giving Bailey new material to play when he goes out on tour.
And this new material will fit right in with Bailey’s back catalog in a live set, to the point where it’s tempting to imagine how different the Twins’ fortunes might have been if this album had come out in the place of the band’s critically maligned 1987 album Close to the Bone. It’s not only much better than that album – it’s arguably better than their previous, and last hit record, 1985’s Here’s to Future Days. It may lack the killer one-two punch of “Lay Your Hands on Me” and “King for a Day,” but not by much, and the remainder of the album is far more consistent.
The opening song (and title track) sets the tone up front. Bailey made the album on his laptop, and it has suitably modern-sounding instrumentation. The song’s chord structure, a variation on Into the Gap track “Sister of Mercy,” gives the song a new-but-familiar vibe. This is a note Bailey strikes several times throughout the album, splicing the essence of one of his older songs into a new composition. “Bring Back Yesterday” bears little resemblance to “King for a Day” until the chorus kicks in, and then Bailey’s vocal phrasing draws yet another line between past and present. (Bailey, for the record, doesn’t hear a similarity between the two. I can’t help but hear one.)
The album’s first single is “What Kind of World,” and in another world (think the one where this album actually did come out in 1987), it’s a Top 10 hit, possibly bigger.
All of Bailey’s songwriting weapons are on display here, from the casual theft of a ‘70s California staple, a la the Twins song “Lies” lifting the bass line to “Low Rider” (in this song’s case, the victim is Santana’s “Oye Como Va”) to the Alannah Currie-esque backing vocals in the second line of the chorus, to that gargantuan wordless hook in the third line of the chorus. “Whoa whoa-oooo-whooooooooa!” That is vintage, none-more-Bailey right there.
For a band that crashed the charts courtesy of the Big Pop Hit, though, some of the Thompson Twins’ finest moments are the darker, introspective songs, and Science Fiction has a couple of those as well. “Blue” is one of the most heartwrenching songs Bailey’s ever written, with a simple melancholy string line serving as the hook/dagger. This, paired with album closer “Come So Far,” gives the second side of Into the Gap a run for its money in terms of downbeat factor.
For all of Bailey’s accomplishments after having not written a pop song in 20+ years, though, there are times when the lyrical assistance of his ex-wife Currie is missed. Bailey’s lyrics aren’t terrible, but they’re terribly basic, missing that extra level of nuance that the best Twins tunes sported. “Diamond rings, and all those things / They never sparkle like your smile”? As simple (and sweet) as that line is, Science Fiction doesn’t have a moment like that. He seems more focused on getting through the lyrics, rather than coming up with a line that rivals its musical counterpart.
This would explain why there is a song called “Work All Day” (a lazy song title that should never be used again, ever), which features the refrain “Don’t tell me to hold your gun,” with the sound of a gun cocking as a percussive effect. If there’s a duff track here, it’s this one. It comes late in the album, though, and it’s followed by “Bring Back Yesterday” and “Come So Far,” which suggests that even Bailey knew that the listener’s palate needed to be cleansed when the song was over.
That Science Fiction is the work of a man who hasn’t even tried to write a pop song in 20 years is unthinkable. Many of Bailey’s ‘80s-era peers have been trying to write songs this good as far back as 1984, and here he is, 34 years later, besting them at the top of their game. They must be furious.