The new wave groups in the platinum bracket — the Cars, Blondie, the Police — got there by playing chicken with cliches. Too self-conscious to rehash standard sentiments but too pop-conscious to shut out listeners, they write terse, hook-filled songs that ride as close to the edge of nihilism as they dare. Or at least near enough to keep themselves honest, to say what they mean and shut up.
If you’re looking for ambivalence, it’s right on the surface of “Let’s Go” and Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” — nothing cryptic, no double-entendres. The good times are purely theoretical, while love is inconvenient and probably impossible. Either the pop audience has grown decidedly unromantic or it’s just not looking too closely. Somehow, these bands’ poker-faced delivery allows a vast, half-listening public to perceive them as cute, hip, friendly pop slingers. Though the implicit irony of using bleached-blond singers as calculated “sex symbols” never registers, the catch phrases hit home, context be damned. Do young lovers in radioland hum “Just What I Needed” at tender moments? I suspect they do.
Success has made all three groups more open, more extreme. The Police revealed themselves as musical experimentalists and writers of disposable lyrics on Ghost in the Machine, and Blondie’s brain trust tried art-snob genre hopping on Autoamerican and KooKoo. For the Cars’ superb 1980 album, Panorama, Ric Ocasek wrote about feeling estranged from (and by) the big time, while the band went gung-ho progressive-eclectic — a leap from the lean nonchalance of the first two Cars LPs toward (relative) sincerity.
Coming after Panorama, Shake It Up is a full-fledged quandary, from the outside in. The cover, designed by drummer David Robinson, looks like a cheesy picture-disc package, a far cry from the group’s usually elegant graphics. The lyrics suggest that Ocasek has succumbed to the misogynous love-kills notions of his fellow arena bands. And the tunes — penned in dark, minor keys, with insistently mechanical rhythms and cold, metallic mixes — enforce distance, detachment, disbelief.
They hook you anyway. The Cars have been pop encyclopedists from the start, but unlike such pastiche-mongers as ELO, they tend to twist what they borrow. (Only when they annex the entire approach of a more obscure group — “A Dream Away,” for example, owes too much to Flash and the Pan — do their ethics seem questionable.) Generally, a familiar lick grabs you just long enough for the Cars’ own peculiarities to sink in. Sometimes they’ll go for an obvious reference, like Greg Hawkes’ Del Shannon-style keyboard blips in “Shake It Up.” Lately, however, they’ve learned to tweak the ear very subtly. In “Victim of Love,” for instance, the instrumental chorus summons the chord progression from the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do Is Dream” (a song as naive as “Victim of Love” is cynical) for a wordless comment on both compositions.
More and more, the Cars are concentrating on undertones — and queasy ones at that. The band has abandoned the dissonance and odd meters of Panorama, which may be why Shake It Up is being promoted as a return to pop. But the arrangements insinuate something else: they’re more dense than previous Cars recordings, so much so that the new numbers will have to be rethought completely before the group plays them live. And at the core of every track is an element (often electronic percussion) that repeats unchangingly throughout the tune. In fact, the first sound on the album — the synthetic pseudo-handclaps that measure out “Since You’re Gone” — is one such element. Usually, melodic embellishments from Hawkes and guitarist Elliot Easton turn repetitive as well.
Licks heard again and again work as hooks, of course, as the Cars have always known. On Shake It Up, however, these guys deliberately OD on repetition, easing closer to the Kraftwerk-Suicide-Ultravox style of robotic dread. Even the rockers have an eerie, static quality — they could go on forever or stop at any moment. “Shake It Up” exhorts people to dance and it moves along at a good clip, yet after a few listenings, the clicking pulse and Hawkes’ back-and-forth stereo arpeggios almost mock the idea of moving at all. In “Think It Over,” the Cars set so many circular riffs in motion that a long fade-out is needed so you’ll hear each one: modulated voices (with the cheerful refrain “nothing you can do”), unmodulated voices, a random-pitch synthesizer, keyboards in various registers, a guitar or two. All this activity (not to mention the walloping backbeat of Robinson and bassist Ben Orr) keeps the track burbling, but the repetition freezes it at the same time. Like a clock ticking on a movie soundtrack, there’s an abstract, dispassionate tension. The Cars certainly aren’t the first to use such an effect, but they use it well.