Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Playboy Music

Ever since Stevie Wonder became an institution in the mid-Seventies, he has made records like one--never bad, never ground-breaking. If Ma Bell had commissioned "I Just Called to Say I Love You," it could have stood as the greatest advertising jingle of all time. But on Characters (Motown), he's no longer playing it safe. "Skeletons" is a wild assault on Reaganite hypocrisy that piles on eight consecutive choruses, each with a new set of rhymes to describe what the crooks are gonna do--drop-shock-pop, shake-ache-break, lie-spy- fry. "In Your Corner" promises to defend a white buddy's ass in a black-bar brawl. "Dark 'n' Lovely" is Wonder's most militant and most lyrical anti-apartheid statement. And "With Each Beat of My Heart" is the kind of heart-tugging ballad that made him an institution. The institution's heartbeat serves as a rhythm track.

Depeche Mode is also becoming an institution, but unless you're a teenager, you probably don't know it. This band survived the U.K.'s new-romantic synthesizer epidemic of the early Eighties, and without much help from radio, it has been selling out U.S. arenas since the fall release of Music for the Masses (Sire). The secret is simple: Just turn adolescent Weltschmerz into something catchy, sexy and seemingly significant. If you're too old for such blandishments, well, excuse me; I've been old enough to find them exotic and educational since I first heard the Shangri-Las at 22. Admittedly, I could do without Martin Gore's S/M metaphors--Weltschmerz is capable of taking itself literally. But Music for the Masses downplays that shit in favor of twisted road imagery. From the definitive "Little 15": "And if you could drive/You could drive her away/To a happier place/To a happier day." Sheer poetry?

Playboy, Apr. 1988


Mar. 1988 May 1988