Howard Jones is more than his synths. The British keyboardist dominated his home country’s charts in the ’80s (and flirted with success on American shores more than a few times in the same period) with fascinatingly busy, seriously catchy slices of synthpop with more than a little R&B influence. But peel back the hooks and riffs and you’ll find the work of a man who is searching–for what, it’s not always clear, but the search is there.
Best 1983-2017 (Cherry Red Records PCDTRED 707), an impressive triple-disc compilation, presents the findings of those searches. With U.K. label Cherry Red now distributing all of Jones’ discography (both his biggest hits for Elektra/WEA in the ’80s and ’90s and the latter-day output on his own Dtox label), it is his first fully career-spanning collection, and nicely juxtaposes both phases of this work (the latter of which is doubtlessly lesser-known to all but the biggest fans). It also helps the listener discover the heretofore little-known depths of Jones’ work, both old and new.
Of course, ’80s radio connoisseurs no doubt remember much of the material on the first disc, covering that most commercially fertile era from 1983 to the decade’s end. Ten of these 16 songs on the first disc logged time on the U.K. Top 40 (eight appeared on the same reaches of the Billboard Hot 100 in America). Lead track “Things Can Only Get Better” is almost betrayed by its keyboard-laden arrangement: with a full band, “Things” anticipates a wave of soul-inspired sophistipop that was starting to crash over the British music scene. (It’s easy to find if you know where to listen, as with female trio Afrodisiak’s leaping background vocals or horn charts from Elvis Costello’s T.K.O. Horns section.) From there, it’s his biggest stateside smash, the single version of “No One Is To Blame.” The staid production of Rupert Hine’s album version gives way to a reverberating piano line and Phil Collins’ familiar, Hugh Padgham-produced gated drum fills and background vocals.
On these tracks and many others–the peppy “New Song,” the pastoral lilt of “Life In One Day,” the haunted, yearning yelps of “All I Want” and “The Prisoner,” the introspective cascade of “What Is Love?”–a common theme starts to develop. Like so many of his contemporaries, pop philosophy is never far from his mind. Howard Jones is “not under the thumb of the cynical few,” he’s looking to put away childish things (“Hide and Seek,” “Look Mama”) and make a connection (“Like To Get To Know You Well,” “All I Want”). The peaks and valleys of romance excite (“Everlasting Love”) and shake him (“You Know I Love You…Don’t You?”).
Bittersweetly, all the questions and wishes he puts out in these stunning tunes don’t seem to find their answers yet. And perhaps, as a result, we leave him obscured by U.K. acts who mined even higher heights with psychological pop (Tears for Fears, for instance), or buried under his cosmetic accouterments–his early-career bleached blonde mane, his habit of performing with mimes or as part of bizarre Grammy performances. (Indeed, a smash like “Blame” only hit the British Top 20, and his last three U.S. Top 40 hits were flops at home.)
Those who checked out at this point–and let’s be honest, it’s more of us than not–missed the crucial second half of the story, which is finally perfectly abridged for new fans to rediscover. After one last album for Warner, the slick, underrated In The Running (1992), Jones kept his feet in the water as an independent artist, recording stylish music inspired by the genres synths were now landing (namely ambient and light techno) and, more importantly, writing lyrics that reflected the resolution of his searching in the ’80s. (Jones converted to Nichiren Buddhism around this time, which heavily influenced his mellower lyrics.)
While these songs are by no means tailored for pop radio, they shine with uncontested beauty. “Cookin’ In The Kitchen,” the light calypso of “Let The People Have Their Say,” the tongue-in-cheek “Just Look At You Now” and gorgeous tunes like “Ordinary Heroes” showcase a Howard Jones that may not have the same things to prove, but still has so much to offer–something only the most hardcore fans and Internet enthusiasts know well (Jones has often been on the bleeding edge of digital distribution and fan outreach in his time as indie artist).
Best 1983-2017 concludes with a sampling of Jones’ current concert work–an area he’s consistently excelled in during his career. (In 2001, Jones was keyboardist for Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band and remains a constant fixture on ’80s package tours while pushing the envelope elsewhere with unique acoustic and multimedia tours.) This third disc, drawn from a bonus DVD with certain pressings of his latest album Engage (2015), is highlighted by pretty, stripped versions of “No One Is To Blame,” “Everlasting Love” and “City Song,” plus “electric” hits like “Just Look At You Now” and a mash-up of “Like To Get To Know You Well” and “Cookin’ In The Kitchen.”
As a physical package, Best 1983-2017 is generally a delight for fans of all stripes. The double digipak features a striking pair of photos on its inner flaps: young Jones and mime artist Jed Hoille on one side, and a more recent photo taken mid-performance. The booklet features personal photos and memorabilia, striking graphics by Steg Read (who designed the cover for Howard’s 1983 debut, Human’s Lib) and an insightful four-page Q&A with the man himself that covers his early musical memories, his rise to fame and the songs he’d most like to be remembered by.
If the package misses anything, it’s a more detailed discography, particularly so fans can source the later albums as they read. The nonlinear sequencing of the first disc is a tad unusual too, considering how chronological the Dtox-era disc is. The unclearest bit is sticking “Everlasting Love” (a solid U.S. Top 20 and one of the author’s personal favorites) in the middle of the disc, amid the much earlier material from Dream Into Action (1985).
These quibbles are, of course, minor, and should do nothing to dissuade fans of all kinds from making this set part of your music collection. Jones’ ongoing story is that of a man who searched for peace in pop and ultimately found it; it’s not hard to imagine you’ll find some sort of meaning in these songs yourself.