Something odd has been happening to me recently. Mathematics. I've gone through 17 years of my life up until this point struggling with numbers and spending most of my lessons going for the time-honoured trick of hiding at the back of the class and hoping desperately that I can hijack any questions by twisting the answers onto how statistics relate to the mainstream media (well, maybe that last bit is just me). While I wouldn't exactly say that I'm any good
at maths right now though, I've found myself taking an interest in it. How patterns relate to one another, and how, underneath chaos, there are often startling patterns that you don't see at first. Now, no-one in their right mind is going to argue that Savage Garden are a chaotic band. But (and here's where the maths comes in), they are incredibly ordered. While a lot of criticism of modern pop music is based around the idea that it's "music by numbers" as it were, Savage Garden really are an example of a band where that's true. I've heard this album countless times, but even the first time I heard it, I felt as if I could tell exactly what was coming next, right down to the exact timing of the bridge in most of the songs here. It's generic. No matter what you think of this music, it meets a remarkable number of stereotypes, and is the kind of thing that 13 year olds everywhere turn their noses up, preferring instead to listen to the fountain of originality that is Linkin Park. Now we've got that cleared up, it's worth remembering that generic is a word that's often used as an insult, but seldom explored beyond that.
That's always been strange to me. Amid generic music, surely it stands to reason that there's going to have to be something genre defining in there. That's just basic logic, right? And that's what we've got with Savage Garden. The lyrics are saccharine ("I knew I loved you before I met you")?, Darren Hayes' voice isn't cloying so much as the kind of thing that you add to tea when there's no sugar around and the musical backing...well, I'm out of laboured metaphors for sugar already, but you get my gist. In short, if you could somehow distil essence of '90s pop music and put it in a bottle, you'd probably get this album. Generic and genre defining simultaneously. What's even more impressive about it is the fact that this was only the second of two albums that Savage Garden made. While opinion among Savage Garden fans appears to be divided as to the relative merits of the two albums, the fact that they got the hang of making pop music this good as quickly as they did is an achievement in its own right.
Although the album follows a certain pattern, the songs aren't all identical by any means. The title-track has an intro that I'll recognise until the day that I die, with a motoring drum into leading into synths (oh, those synths!) and Darren Hayes adding some lyrics that attempt to be profound while managing to be so utterly cliched as to defy the limits of banality. Although he displays some alarmingly Marxist tendencies (struggle for financial freedom isn't just fair but an essential part of the free market system), Affirmation
is nevertheless wonderful fun, and positively blasts along for over 5 minutes. Then you've got the disco-tinged Best Thing
, which draws on the parents of the Scissor Sisters
and the Jackson 5 to create what another anthem that follows a distinctly different sound throughout. Like Affirmation
, Best Thing
also shows off one of the band's greatest talents, and that's the ability to write an incredibly strong bridge within the song. Although the bridge of Best Thing
doesn't compare to that in the title track, it's a clear selling point of the song. Another strong point of the album is the up-lifting power ballad. Although it would be foolish to pretend that the group limit themselves to one of these on this album, the clearest and most famous of those contained here is Crash & Burn
. Far softer than either of the two standout tracks mentioned so far, Crash & Burn
shows off the fact that Darren Hayes can actually sing rather well, particularly given the fact that the instrumentation (arranged by Daniel Jones) takes a back seat throughout the song.
In spite of the fact that the lyrics are frequently the embodiment of a stereotype of pop lyrics, credit has to be given to the band for their songwriting at this point. Although Darren Hayes is the name most commonly associated with the band, Daniel Jones should genuinely be recognised as a guy who had a serious knack for knowing exactly how to arrange music to provide the perfect complement to Hayes's lyrics. If there's one thing that makes this music work, it's a willingness to acknowledge that there simply is no such thing as "over the top", and the squealing guitars that appear from time to time, such as in Chained To You
and Crash And Burn
provide a perfect illustration of this fact.
There are distinct moments when things go wrong though. The first 7 tracks on the album make up one the best first halves of any pop album I've ever heard. Of the next four, the only one that I listen to unless I'm too lazy to hit the skip button is Two Beds And A Coffee Machine
and that's because I'm inexplicably attached to the effect of a piano and a string section together. It's also possibly the band's only real attempt to move onto more serious ground, with it being about the effects of domestic violence. Admittedly it's got the same level of profundity as when Blink 182
talk about the marital problems that their parents have, but it's nevertheless a genuinely nice ballad. It's difficult to tell whether songs such as Lover After Me
and You Can Still Be Free
are simply mediocre compared to the rest of the songs on here or whether they're genuinely average offerings, but the effect is the same regardless. Like many pop albums the latter half of this album lets down the first somewhat, but such is the strength of the opening 7 songs that I'm prepared to forgive and forget. Hell, I'm even a fan of The Animal Song
, which was used in one of the worst Disney films that I've ever seen in my life (and trust me, I've seen an awful lot of Disney films). This song took some heavy criticism when it first came out, mainly because of the slightly tortured comparison with people needing to live like animals because it's all so much freer that way, but the fact that it sounds strangely like it's going to break into the Macarena at any moment immediately redeems it in my mind. In addition to that winning trait, it's got the same feel as Affirmation
, in that it's a song that people invariably listen to with an incredibly goofy smile on their face.
Although this may read as if I'm laughing at the band from time to time, I"m completely serious in my evaluation of the album. Is it funny to listen to? Realistically, yes. It's frequently cheesy, the lyrics resort to empty expressions of love quite regularly, and if you simply don't like pop music, this should be avoided. But as an example of how good cheesy, happy pop music can be, there are very few albums of the last 20 years that can top it. It's something of a mystery as to what made Savage Garden work, since Darren Hayes's solo career was something to forget as soon as possible, and Daniel Jones simply disappeared after the band broke up. It's probably better that they never made it into this decade. Like Oasis, the Clinton Presidency and The End of History and the Last Man
, Savage Garden were something that would only work, or even make sense in the last, transitory decade. But when they did, these guys seriously defined what good '90s pop music was like.