English new wave techno-pixie Howard Jones assembled his massively popular career from humanist philosophy, chart smarts and electronic keyboards. Using instruments that, in the mid-’80s, were generally favored for their mechanical anonymity, the Southampton native created bouncy, warmhearted missives of personal encouragement and general goodwill. This likable ex-hippie may very well have been the new age’s first pinup popster.
Starting out like a retooled elf-era Marc Bolan, the well-scrubbed Jones possessed equally acute pop sensibilities. But rather than play acoustic guitar with a bongo drummer on the side, he controled an array of sophisticated electronic keyboards, singing earnest, reflective lyrics of personal awareness and individualist philosophy. Human’s Lib, produced mainly by Rupert Hine, boasts such warm techno-pop standouts as “New Song,” “Pearl in the Shell” and “What Is Love?,” all of which stop just short of over-perkiness and saccharine platitudes.
Dream Into Action, which employs more outside musicians (horns, vocalists, a cellist) to vary the sound, serves up another dose of engaging nouveau-pop (“Things Can Only Get Better,” “Life in One Day,” “Like to Get to Know You Well”). The album does, unfortunately, contain an extremely duff howler, “Bounce Right Back.” The 12-Inch Album compiles six hits in their remixed forms.
Taking advantage of Jones’ massive American popularity, Elektra issued Action Replay, a collection of five alternate versions and remixes of songs from Dream Into Action and other sources, plus the previously unreleased “Always Asking Questions.”
For One to One, producer Arif Mardin put Jones in the studio with a full complement of backup musicians, thereby focusing attention on him as writer/singer rather than a one-man music machine. The conservative cover portrait reflects an overall stylistic retrenchment: the once-colorful elf has become part of a mainstream adult pop enterprise. He hasn’t sold out — nothing about Jones was ever that outré to begin with — but the shift leaves the soul-inflected One to One noticeably short on twink and charm.
Jones attempted to engage his musical gears more aggressively on the heavyhearted Cross That Line and partially succeeded. Besides the familiar HoJo bounce of “Everlasting Love,” the mostly self-produced album stretches to encompass a solo piano piece (pointing to his future concentration), funky dance tunes with horns, a waltz played on Fairlight strings, new age ambience, a blast of raunchy electric guitar and other stylistic digressions. While the melancholy lyrics about a troubled relationship coming to a disappointing end give the record emotional gravity, the same seriousness prevents the music from reaching escape velocity. Impressive in its ambitious stylistic variety, Cross That Line is an aimless adventure with only a few gripping chapters.
All four of Jones’ ’80s albums are fairly represented on the exhaustive 1993 retrospective, as is In the Running, a fussed-over years-in-the-making tribute to Jackson Browne (or Tears for Fears; it’s hard to tell). Using loads of live musicians to load up the panoramic production, Jones — who remains a solidly appealing songwriter through it all — comes up with a bland mainstream record that sounds far more artificial than his rudimentary old synth-pop efforts.
On his way back to action, Jones made Working in the Backroom, which he self-released and sold at his shows. The liner notes explain the modest, homemade album as a compilation of technically imperfect demos — of course, his proficiency is such that this stuff is equal to most Top 40 artists’ highly polished perfection. Still, the absence of studio intricacy allows the typically well-crafted originals to breathe as they haven’t in ages. Beyond the pleasure of hearing a major star rediscovering the joyful essence of his art, some of these optimistic songs are as ingenuously winning as the old standards. (Incidentally, for those who still have their old scrapbooks, Jed — the terpischorean with whom Jones performed early in his career — now teaches dance in England.)