Review Summary: The Correct Use of Synths
Released in 1980, and roughly 4 years after Magazine's leader/weirdo-in-chief Howard Devoto left the seminal UK punk band Buzzcocks, 'The Correct Use Of Soap' marks a definite return to the lively Post-Punk first seen on their classic debut, 'Real Life', and then summarily done away with on the followup, 'Secondhand Daylight'. The keyboard-heavy experimentalism and chilly detachment of the latter album are for the most part discarded here, though Devoto retains his dark, outsider's worldview and 'Idiosyncratic' vocal stylings, somewhat reminiscent of David Byrne from little known US rock n' roll band Talking Heads.
Musically, 'Buildings and Food' era Heads are probably the best reference point here, if there is one, both bands' songs sharing a jittery, nervous energy and surreal outlook that few others have been able to replicate since. However, Magazine's songs are perhaps not quite as determinedly minimalist in style, employing awesomely named keyboardist John Formula to great effect on bouncy, catchy tracks like 'Sweetheart Contract' and 'Model Worker', adding tonal colour while not bringing the naffness in too big a way - a 'less is more' approach that all rock keyboardists should learn from. I'm looking at YOU, Rick Wakeman (and your f**king ridiculous cape)
Furthermore, the bass-guitar duo of Barry Adamson and the legendary (well, sort of) John McGeoch are on top form here, perhaps most memorably on the sublime brit-funk of 'Stuck', McGeoch unleashing some downright obscene chicken-scratch riffing over the top of Adamson's lithe, alluring bassline, McGeoch even having time for a perfectly fiddly solo before morphing back into Catfish Collins' alter ego once more. Last but not least (well, maybe least, he is the drummer after all), John Doyle provides a nimble-yet-rock-solid foundation for all this to rest on by nobly refusing to clutter the songs with any excess wankery, instead sticking to a variety of mainly punk-inspired beats, the only real musical similarity to the Buzzcocks on the album.
However, it's Howard Devoto who really takes this album to epicness and beyond. His instantly recognizable speak-singing could be described as unconventional at best, but it allows for a surprising range of (negative) emotions , allowing him to express his dark, oft-surreal lyrics in the most memorable way possible. 'Look what fear's done to my body', he chants in the refrain of album opener and highlight 'Because You're Frightened', backed by hammering keyboard and choppy guitar. It's the nearest thing the album gets to a love song, naturally. The underdog outlook is one that Devoto frequently takes throughout the album, most memorably on the brilliant 'Song From Under the Floorboards', where, over a skeletal guitar line and oddly triumphant synths, he subjects himself to brutal self-analysis - first telling us how he is 'angry and ill and ugly as sin' and 'an insect', but then proclaiming that he's 'proud as hell of that fact'. Lyrical moments like this appear throughout the album, and are oddly poignant in their own way when taken as a counterpoint to the lively, occasionally quirky music.
Lyrics and musicianship aside, and perhaps most importantly, the songwriting is absolutely top-notch here, with nary a bad track on the album. Despite Devoto's limited singing range, he manages to craft a variety of odd, effective hooks, and the melodicicity (it's a word now) of the music more than provide in that department when Devoto cannot. As an added bonus, an excellent cover of Sly Stone's 'Thank You' in the middle of the album is a welcome detour, though Magazine's signature sound is so varied that it never really slips into homogeny anyway.
When Devoto sings 'I would've been Raskolnikov/But Mother Nature ripped me off' in the driving, fleet-footed 'Philadelphia', you've gotta be glad he wasn't sold short in the musical department. I'm not sure how well he'd fit into Dostoyevsky anyway, all things considered.
Best Tracks: Because You're Frightened, Song From Under the Floorboards, Model Worker