Despite a string of hits in the UK and US, Howard Jones isn’t remembered or respected much in the same way as his 80s synth-pop contemporaries. This is largely due to the fact that Jones is a pop songwriter through and through, and that joyful, optimistic outlook has remained throughout his work.
Whilst Depeche Mode got darker, Pet Shop Boys got introspective, and Human League and Heaven 17 got political, Jones’ songs focused on positivity and self-improvement. After the 80s synth wave died out and gave way to the more cynical and downbeat mood of the 90s, he began working with acoustic sounds and slower, more heartfelt ballads. But even as his material got slower and more minimalist, his optimistic outlook remained. It’s quite commendable to see an artist ignore trends and continue to create upbeat pop songs that encourage positivity and idealism. And with many of today’s biggest artists recreating the electronic sounds of the 80s, Jones’ latest output has been focused on the poppy, synthscape sound that made him famous.
With his latest album, Transform, Jones is very much within his comfort zone; big synths, big hooks, and big choruses. This album couldn’t sound more 80s if it walked around in shoulder pads whistling Rick Astley. Jones clearly knows where his talents lie and is skilled enough to put a new spin on well-worn material and make something worthwhile. Transform has a confidence to it, with most tracks diving straight into electronic soundscapes that have been produced and worked on to the smallest detail. And amidst the gorgeous washes of synth sounds and syncopated drum beats, Jones’ voice sounds sincere and heartfelt. They might not be as powerful and expansive as they did in his youth when he was belting out hits like “New Song” at Live Aid, but his vocals are filled with conviction and emotion that perfectly match the soaring melodies and pulsing soundscapes.
Opening track “The One to Love You” sets the tone for the album, with a smooth beat and cascading synths backing Jones’ pleas to care for a loved one. It’s emblematic of what Transform sounds like as a whole, with the chilled mood making a perfect soundtrack for moments of reflection. “Eagle Will Fly” is a daft piece of joyful dance music, with big beats and persistent electronics echoing throughout. The lyrics are full of lines about rising and falling that would come off as corny if there wasn’t so much clear enthusiasm behind them. And “At the Speed of Love” is as a pure piece of 80s anthem cheese, with a soaring chorus that’s both silly and heartfelt.
The album showcases Jones’ talents as a songwriter who can leave you with a sense of hope and optimism, and as a pop musician who can write great hooks and tunes that are as silly as they are fun. It’s easy for know-it-all fans and “cool” artists to turn their noses up at stuff like this, but there’s nothing wrong with enjoyable pop music that’s both daft and sincere enough to sometimes hit you in the feels and other times have you singing along while you’re smashed. After all, with the current mood of today’s world, we could probably do with music that’s just about having a good time.
The only real clunker on the album is the track “Mother”, which slows the pace way down for a somber, moody piece about the strength of a mother’s love. Now, it’s not exactly out of the question for there to be slower songs or ballads to be amongst faster pop songs. “At the Speed of Love” is proof of that. But “Mother” is too somber and self-serious, dragging down the fun vibe that the rest of the album has built. Thankfully, the best track “Stay With Me” immediately follows to end the album on a high, its pulsing beats and smooth disco guitar riffs creating a giddy funk sound that’d make Nile Rodgers proud.
Overall, Transform is not an album for people who prefer serious, weighty music. If you’re the kind of person who thinks synths should’ve been destroyed after 1989 and complains when they hear Duran Duran on a night out, this isn’t an album for you. But if you’re looking for music that’s as joyous and positive as it is entertaining, then you can’t go wrong with this. Howard Jones might not be as respected as his nostalgia-driven peers, but he’s just as enjoyable and fun to listen to.