Part of the reason for me choosing to write about this album is that I recently had the chance to explain why I loved it so when guesting on a regional radio show (it’s kind of my thing these days, I’m the Luis Guzman of Internet/Community radio) and I choked like one of Eminem’s opponents in 8 Mile (Times Up, Over, Blauw!)…totally blew it and like Gary Numan finds on this album, I want redemption! I’m not trying to put across some kind of “Oh-I’m-not-cool-and-I-don’t-care-because-I-have-so-much-integrity” nonsense. I released the Nosferatu D2 album; I know how much cooler I am than you, But Pure, the sixteenth (?) studio album from Gary Numan, is probably the least hip choice for a “Paint It Back” feature yet…it may even be the least cool record to ever be featured on GFP. I’d have to check with the academy, but I think it’s a safe bet.
Truthfully, Pure was never a cool record to like. It came out in 2000 when I was a 13-year-old goth and the only goth I knew. None of my friends liked the album, and Kerrang! made fun of it because he was old and militant atheism was justifiably becoming a bit of a tired topic. (Thanks to Twitter, it’s back.) But for one reason or another, I had it in my head that this was a well-received and well-liked album (forums, maybe? I did a lot of those back then) and that Numan was laughing all the way to the bank. It was an underdog story akin to that of Rocky Balboa in 1976, Terry Funk in 1997 or Tommy Dreamer in 2009. So, imagine my surprise when I looked this record up about ten years later only to find that the world had kind of crapped all over it. I mean, these were some vengeful frickin’ reviews! NME said it was “wholly charmless” (pot/kettle, me old chums!) and Drowned in Sound gave it 2/10 with a resolution to melt the disc afterward. I didn’t even threaten to do that to the Bellowhead CDs I acquired through my horrible old job. So, not for the first time, I wanted GFP to be that little beacon of light, spreading the GOOD WORD about ol’ Gary Numan’s belated classic.
While most people my age either wanted to be Chester Bennington or Marshall Mathers, I was posing in front of my mirror listening to Pure and enjoying fantasies of performing an in-store at a long demolished record shop in Croydon called Shake Some Action, playing the biggest synth you’ve never seen. It didn’t happen, but these things rarely do.
It’s hard to say quite why this album made such an impression on me at the time. I think partly it offered some kind of novelty as it was so far removed from his two main hits (“Cars” and “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”). Plus, being so young, part of the magic was how much of a mystery most of the sounds were. I had no idea where the noises on the instrumental “Fallen” were coming from; I have vague memories of trying to air-guitar along to its static buzzes and looking a little like my mother did when listening to later Radiohead records. But the album’s real strength for me was its harrowing theme of personal tragedy. Many of the songs detail a miscarriage suffered by Numan’s wife Gemma. Throughout history there’s rarely been anything more tragic than the loss of a child (one of many inspirations for this Audio Antihero compilation), and the sadness and anger behind this album hasn’t failed to reach me once in 12 years of owning it. And we’ll get to that later.
Thrust into the limelight at the age of 19, Numan was a pioneering artist, fusing Synth with Punk as a part of Tubeway Army before the complete abandonment of guitars on The Pleasure Principle and creating an astonishing sonic universe of his own on albums like Telekon and even Dance (Synthetic Jazz, anyone?) These early successes would eventually transform into a largely dismissed ten-plus year period of Disco-Funk –Synth-Pop albums which began to see a turnaround in 1994 with the decidedly “darkwave” album Sacrifice which paved the way for 1997’s similarly god baiting Exile and finally 2000’s Pure – Numan essentially went from a patchy punk rocker to an electronic pioneer, to a controversial pop star to a massive joke…and while coming back around with an atheist outlook and some Trent Reznor-esque Industrial moves wasn’t exactly a 360 back to credibility or commercial success, it marked Numan’s return to artistry and for the remaining Numanoids that was more than enough.
The album’s opening line is not one of a pop star:
“I want to feel you hesitate / I want to feel you pull away / I want to feel you realize / That I am not love come to play.”
Usually washed-up pop stars of Numan’s age are doing swing versions of their hits on albums with titles like “After All This Time,” “Forever Young,” “Memories Reborn,” “Years Gone By,” or even worse, “Gary Numan Sings The Beatles!” So, Numan immediately gets points for effort, even if his approach seems a tad juvenile by today’s standards. Now that we’ve worked out what a lamestain Marilyn Manson is, there really is no debating that there’s just nothing cool about Industrial Gothic Rock; today, the Indie-Cool thing to do is no longer to MSN chat about listening to B-sides direct from 7-inch singles but instead to tweet loudly about Beyonce, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. There are songs on Pure about “Black Angels” being sent to get you and “tearing the skin from God’s face” and the cover art is absolutely horrible. The majority of Numan’s records have very bad artwork, but at least The Fury and Beserker were a bit funny looking; Pure resembles an early PC-format survival horror game that took its influences from The Prophecy with Christopher Walken. These failings are, however, ultimately a part of its strength; the fact that the album seemed dated upon release has actually helped the record age relatively gracefully and such unfashionable attributes are perhaps a tribute to Numan’s earnestness. After all, it’s probably quite hard to make an honest album about losing a child if you’re overly concerned with what Pitchfork will say about it.
No, sir, Numan was all heart on this one. At the time, the situation for me was “Hey, guys! You know that guy who did all that stupid pop music in the ‘80s? Well, now he makes rock music!” Nowadays, it’s, “You remember that guy who was totally brilliant in the ‘70s and ‘80s? Well, now he’s the made the best album ever!” which is a remarkable aging process for an album of this style. Charting Alt. Rock from the 2000s is generally quite difficult to remember fondly…even if you were fond of it at the time.
My introduction to this album was the song “My Jesus” appearing on a cover mount CD (remember those?) on some kind of goth (remember those?) music magazine (remember those?) that I picked up in Camden Town as a pup. It was a suffocating song full of strange sounds, fog thick production and an exhausted vocal that built up to an awesomely strained “I’M PRAYYYIIINNNG! FOR! MY! SOUL!” hook. Again, probably not one for the Brooklyn poet/producers of today’s blogger world, but this grim story of a deranged murderer spurred on by a supposed message from God was just the ticket at the time and was a perfect taster for the album. This release saw Numan returning just a little bit to Replicas where he was able to create a world within an album, as opposed to a record like Strange Charm which simply plays as a collection of songs. Replicas was an exciting Blade Runner-esque world of science fiction (it was deeply nihilistic, but at least they had a park). Pure was a place…a dark, dark place full of sadness and fear, a claustrophobic hell with an atmosphere akin to that of a better Clive Barker adaptation. I was so suckered in by album’s alien sound and by Numan’s furiously desperate delivery that by the time it gets to something of real personal depth, I was already an emotional wreck. The songs that deal with the miscarriage and failed IVF attempts are heartbreaking. The quiet hook of, “If only, if only miracles happened every day / no one can blame us but you,” in “Little Invitro” is a truly touching admission from the man who once sung about cars. The album’s key moment though is undoubtedly “A Prayer For the Unborn,” a six-minute lament wherein Numan asks questions for which he already knows there are no satisfactory answers:
So, I prayed, but you weren’t listening…making miracles?
So, I begged, but you were far away…saving souls perhaps?
So, I screamed, but she was very small…and you have worlds to mend.
So, she died… and you were glorious – but you were somewhere else…
If you are my shepherd, then I’m lost and no one can find me…
I’d spit on your heaven, if I could find one to believe in.
I didn’t get to see Gary Numan live until 2009, and when I did, he played this song. When he played this song, I totally wept. I cried like I had spilled all the milk. Heartbreaking. Then I saw him again (with my man Benjamin Shaw, who was trying very hard to be nice to me), and I did it again. This song slays me every time, without remorse. It takes me way, way back to a time when I could like emotional music without irony, when a band could do that strained “I’m so twisted!” vocal and I’d actually believe them, when an artist could tell me how miserable they were and I’d actually care. In no way were the early 2000s a Golden Age for rock music (L.O.L), but for those of us in our mid-twenties now (oh, my) they were un-sceptical days where Brandon Boyd was Pavarotti and Corey Taylor was Ian Curtis. The beauty with Pure for me is that it represents these glory days of deep attachment and empathy with seemingly everything I heard (except The Strokes and a local band called Suicidal Goldfish), no matter how melodramatic and self-centered. And, somehow, it doesn’t sound a day older and it certainly doesn’t feel any older, either; it holds a power over me far stronger than nostalgia. I’ve developed this suspicion of artists not meaning what they say, and I always wonder how it is that they manage to drag all that crippling pain, misery and fear down to the studio with them. This album ends with the claim that “I’m so scared, I just can’t breathe.” I’m sure he was fine on the day – but I still care.
I’ve sort of grown to think of Numan as the people’s pop star, robotic tax hating semi-Tory that he is. Numan doesn’t strike me as someone who was meant to be a star; suffering undiagnosed with aspergers until middle age and spending the bulk of his career being despised by critics, peers and the general public, he’s seemingly always been falling from grace. Numan seems just a little like the rest of us. He’s flawed and he certainly can’t please all the people all the time. If you’ve ever seen him in interview then you know he literally never says the right thing…but here he is. Getting it wrong more often than not, just like everyone else, but he’s still there and he’s still doing what he does. A true Audio Antihero, if ever there were one.
After a lengthy career of ups and downs, the fan-pleasing Pure came out in 2000 and entered the UK Top 75 album’s chart. Numan scored his first top 40 single since 1988 with “RIP” (accompanied by a heavily rotated, if totally pants music video) and he even recorded a Peel Session, his first since 1979. The album was followed by sell-out tours and two further LPs, Jagged (2006) and Dead Son Rising (2011), both of which were strong and proved Numan’s newly regained penchant for consistency, though neither release quite hit me on that gut level like the bitterly beautiful Pure – his 21st century masterpiece. And if you’d like a happy ending,…well, on his Hope Bleeds live album, Gary Numan proudly announced that he was a father at last and I was delighted. Now, I obviously don’t expect this overlong write-up to convince anyone new to appreciate this record like I do; I really just want to put it out there as my own personal love letter to Numan’s finest work. Thanks, Gary, you the man.
Audio Antihero’s “Oh, the Numanity!” playlist for GFP
A final memory: I was in a Wimpy and gifting my chum a copy of Gary Numan’s Scarred live album from the Pure tour when we were politely interrupted by someone asking if Gary Numan was dead or not…and then they insisted that Numan had fronted The Human League (The Numan League!)…and I felt sad. If you don’t want to be as painfully mistaken as this gentleman, then you can try my mammoth “Oh, the Numanity!” playlist over on Rdio – enjoy. And thank you for reading.