wed 16/04/2014

The Human League, Royal Albert Hall | New music reviews, news & interviews

The Human League, Royal Albert Hall

Age still hasn't withered Sheffield's electropop veterans

Human League: (left to right) Phil Oakey, Joanne Catherall, Susan Sulley

Seasonal appearances by The Human League have an air of Christmas panto about them, with halls packed with coach parties of devoted fans who all seem to know each other, but the group have quietly solidified into a great British success story. They made the jump from experimental beginnings to become darlings of early-Eighties electropop, but more remarkable still is their ability to produce modestly credible new music 30 years later. Several cuts from their 2011 album Credo, especially the evening's opener "Sky", were able to stand alongside highlights from their golden years with heads held defiantly high.

Part of the League's charm is the way they've stubbornly remained themselves. They've stoutly resisted any temptation to add orchestras or horn sections, and stick rigidly to the formula of Phil Oakey plus backing girls (I guess we should say women these days) Joanne Catherall and Susan Sulley and their tried and tested electropop sound. None of  them is a particularly stunning performer in their own right, and Oakey's voice can be a harsh, awkward instrument when it's left exposed, but blend them together and the results can pack an unexpected punch. For instance, their three-voiced assault on the chorus of "Heart Like A Wheel" produced a frisson of pure pop voltage, while "Mirror Man" sounded like The Supremes produced by Phil Spector.

As they worked through their frill-free 90 minute set, it was amazing how many of the tunes have begun to assume heroic proportions with the passage of time. "The Things That Dreams Are Made Of", with its checklist of requirements for a decent standard of hedonistic living, resembles a manifesto for the Eighties New Pop ethic. "Love Action", with its distinctive synth signatures, is the acme of clubland electropop, while "Fascination" isn't far behind.

But it's by no means all smiley-faced froth. "Seconds", about the JFK assassination, exudes a chilling sense of neurosis, while "The Lebanon" was proof that synth-wielding popstrels can do political songs too. Through it all, the League like to put on a bit of a floor show. Oakey, bald-headed and spindly-legged, worked his way through a sartorial smorgasbord of sleazy black trenchcoat, dark suit, white top with hood, severe overcoat with MI6 sunglasses and a few more, while Susan and Joanne switched from white to black and deployed more, or less, leg. Sulley, now nearly 50, must spend most of her days off in the gym judging by the muscular midriff and slender legs she took great pleasure in showing off.

Clearly they had to save their signature hit "Don't You Want Me" for the encores, and the fact that everybody knew it was coming meant that the familiar opening synth salvoes were greeted with extra-strength euphoria. For a finale they unwrapped "Electric Dreams", the hit single Oakey wrote with producer Giorgio Moroder. Its tuneful, naive charm supplied the perfect closing touch. 

'Heart Like A Wheel' produced a frisson of pure pop voltage, while 'Mirror Man' sounded like The Supremes produced by Phil Spector

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