Derivative, arrogant and at times unbearably pretentious, Terence Trent D’Arby is nevertheless so inventive and entertaining (when he’s in the mood) that it’s hard not to be seduced by his rock’n’soul pastiche. Recorded with British veterans of the pub-rock/new wave wars, the New York native’s accomplished debut, Introducing the Hardline, includes the sultry hit “Wishing Well,” which created unrealistic commercial expectations, but it’s a fine album in any case. Eager to prove his versatility from the git-go, he unleashes a funky shout (“Dance Little Sister”), wails gospel (“If You All Get to Heaven”), croons a sultry romantic come-on (“Sign Your Name”) and rocks out (“If You Let Me Stay”). Though he’ll never rise to the stirring grace of his number-one role model, Sam Cooke — he’s got the inflections and the texture, but little of the warmth — the obvious pleasure D’Arby takes in plying his craft makes even the embarrassing misfires fascinating in a twisted way. Confident down to his toenails, D’Arby also inspires favorable comparisons to such luminaries as Al Green and Smokey Robinson, and he rocks out, to boot. (Fans of early- ’70s British rock may recognize the Roger Chapman influence on “If You Let Me Stay.”)
Emboldened by his quick success, D’Arby wasted no time embracing the sophomore slump with a vengeance, promptly alienating the mainstream following that needs reassurance to keep coming back for more. Pompously announcing “I will not be defined” at the start of Neither Fish nor Flesh (subtitled A Soundtrack of Love, Faith, Hope & Destruction), he offers up a murky, lukewarm stew of psychedelic funk, screwy, skeletal rockers, spacey Marvin Gaye soul, a few commercial gestures and plenty of self-indulgent mood pieces. Individually, most of the tracks have virtues; collectively, they add up to the most unfocused record in the history of western civilization. Weirdly intriguing but not at all good.
Despite self-conscious conceptual trappings, D’Arby’s subsequent albums have attempted to reingratiate him to normal buyers. The next two are excellent, eclectic pop records that emphasize his strengths and feature a slew of catchy numbers along with a few inevitable stinkers. Symphony or Damn (Exploring the Tension Inside the Sweetness) sparkles on the upbeat tunes, including the furious “Baby Let Me Share My Love,” the glittering “Penelope Please” and the sizzling “She Kissed Me,” while the ominous “Succumb to Me” makes lust seem dangerous. To hear the corniest tune ever written, check out the icky “Let Her Down Easy.”
Vibrator (Batteries Included) is just as diverse, but with a case of the jitters. Featured in Robert Altman’s Pret-a-Porter (Ready to Wear), “Supermodel Sandwich” is psychedelia lite, a vibe pushed to edgier extremes in “Read My Lips (I Dig Your Scene).” With silly lyrics about the “slow striptease of time” and the like, “TTD’s Recurring Dream” is so shamelessly melodramatic that it’s great fun. Apparently concerned with balancing the belligerent desire of “C.Y.F.M.L.A.Y?” (“can you feel my love around you”) and gentler sentiments, D’Arby includes plenty of drippy stuff, so be prepared to hit the skip button a few times.
The Touch’s album, Early Works, is routine pop- soul recorded in Germany with a local band D’Arby joined after finishing an Army hitch there in ’83. Such are the skeletons that plague the famous.