It’s very hard to explain the eighties to someone who either wasn’t alive then or isn’t old enough to remember it. After all, this was the decade when the computer was named the man of the year by Time Magazine, John Lennon was shot, Pac-Man was released, MTV was launched, Prince Charles married Diana, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded, the Berlin Wall was torn down, the Cold War was slowly coming to an end and most of the music world went crazy with synthesizers and electric drums.
However, in the early eighties, before pop music got completely synthesized, there was a short time period when musicians still relied mostly on “real” instruments to get the job done. The music from this era is often referred to as "new wave." Some of the most famous and illustrious groups from this genre are Duran Duran, the Police and Blondie. Even though our track of the week, "The Modern World" by a new London-based group of the same name doesn’t really fit neatly into that category, it nevertheless embodies some of the best elements of this genre: eighties-style funk guitar, laid-back and loose drum groove, relaxed bass, punchy vocals that are very Bowiesque and an outstanding, sexy saxophone solo.
However, the thing that caught my attention when I listened to this track for the very first time was that even though its title was “The Modern World,” it seemed to be a song about the mixed feelings we experience when ending relationships. Although I thought the music end of it was very exciting, I found myself a little skeptical about the discrepancy between the title and the lyrics. The song didn’t really appear to have anything to do with the modern world – or so I thought before I shot an email to the song’s author Oli James, the principal songwriter of The Modern World. Explains James:
The ‘modern world’ in the song is the world that forces us into a cycle of money making and money spending, so in the end we pull away from situations where our emotions could compromise our ability to survive.
Couldn’t agree more! I was slowly beginning to see the logic between the lyrics and the title of the track. In addition, there was something powerful about the simplicity and the sparseness of these words. Yet, more importantly, what had originally felt like disconnected writing took on a new, deeper meaning and turned out to be rather insightful in the end. My personal opinion has been for a long time that if all mortgages and bank loans were forgiven, the number of divorces would soar! This is, perhaps, not a very Brady-Bunch thing to say but since when did Brady Bunch have anything to do with reality?
But let’s get back to the lyrics. They also tackle another problem we run into when we are not quite happy or content with someone. On the one hand, we know we are better off ending the relationship but on the other hand, part of us wants to stay.
Well, I think I’ve had enough
Gonna be some time
Till I’m safe back
In your arms
What makes leaving even harder is the fact that nothing in life is usually black and white – notice the use of the word “think” in the line “I think I’ve had enough.” Our spouses, for instance, might have some aspects we adore and some aspects that drive us mad. As long as the relationship is not abusive mentally or physically, the thought of leaving is always daunting, not to mention risky. How do you know if you will meet someone better? I suppose this is why so many people opt to stay in marriages and relationships that aren’t really right for them – better the devil you know. And once you add kids to the equation, an incredibly complex situation turns even more complex.
The alienation that comes from being together but alone with someone is actually described pretty damn well in the lyrics. In fact, it’s described down to a T.
Well I can’t explain
But I feel left out
On my own again
I asked Oli about the inspiration behind the lyrics and he was more than happy to take a walk down the memory lane with me.
I wrote the verses in a hostel in Morocco on the run from an affair in Moscow, where I was living at the time. I wanted to capture that feeling when you want in as much as you want out, but you grit your teeth and decide it’s time to leave. The idea of the refrain “Till I’m safe back / In your arms” was to acknowledge dependency. Too frequently we hide in others.
Obviously, there is much more to this song than just the lyrics or the musical elements I mentioned in the beginning of this review. The tune has a very infectious melody and a catchy chorus, and if you listen carefully, you’ll notice that it has quite a few brilliant little things happening in the background: the gorgeous female harmonies and vocal fills, the two electric guitars constantly battling for attention and some extremely tasteful piano-playing and keyboard-work throughout. I also like the way the song calms down for the tender saxophone solo as opposed to gearing up and exploding – this way of doing it is less predictable and much more sophisticated.
The Modern World grooves through their music in an extremely confident way, clearly having a great time, fully well knowing they sound amazing. This is real music for real people, not something synthetic whipped up in a state-of-the-art recording studio with a six-digit budget and a team of producers that has more members than the band itself. Furthermore, this is music that does not apologize, it does not try to impress you and it most definitely does not beg you to like it. However, it does what all incredibly good music should be doing: it completely and utterly enchants you.
The sound of the group is best described as a three-way marriage of the early eighties, David Bowie and the Rolling Stones. While the vocals and the song itself remind you a lot more of David Bowie than the Stones, the actual playing, the chemistry of the group, definitely makes you think you are listening to the Stones at their funkiest. Keith Richards once described the chemistry between him and Ronnie Wood as the “ancient art of weaving.” I’ll go ahead and use that same weaving metaphor to describe what the Modern World sounds like as a group: They truly and clearly play off of one another.
I was stoked to notice that the Modern World released a new single a few weeks ago called “When You Were Mine” – a pleasant surprise for someone like me who really enjoyed their debut. I strongly urge anyone who is reading this to go and have a listen, as this single is even better than the first. And there’s more good news for folks who appreciate this band. The group will continue to release singles on a regular basis and there might even be an album coming out in the autumn. I for one am certainly looking forward to that.
Before closing, I want to return to the topic of the modern world and being trapped with someone you are not content with. Having experienced the indecision of whether or not to end a relationship, I understand the difficulty of such a situation. Furthermore, I do believe that there are cases when to leave is the only viable option. However, having said that, my opinion is that people break up and get divorced too easily these days. It seems we all are fixated and obsessed with finding our dream partners – nothing less than perfect is good enough. I remember going for a pint with one of my father’s sailor buddies a long, long time ago in my early twenties. I asked him why people didn’t get divorced that often in the fifties and sixties. He looked at me and said, “Beats me! I guess after the war, we were so busy trying to figure out who’s going to feed the chickens, plow the field and put dinner on the table that there was no time to think if your wife was perfect for you.” He thought about it for a while and continued with a faint smile on his face, “If she knew the difference between a cow and a bull, it meant you got milk with your cereal at breakfast and that was more than good enough.” Well, we might have higher standards today but one thing hasn’t changed, milking a bull is useless…not to mention more than a little dangerous (not speaking from experience, merely presenting an educated guess).
Check out the fantastic “Pauline” from Oli James’ solo release “The Moscow EP.”
You can learn more about The Modern Word:
About the curator - Tommi Tikka
Tom Tikka is a linguist, poet, professional songwriter, recording artist and a music aficionado. He started playing guitar when he was four and writing songs when he was six. Consequently, he doesn't remember a time when he wasn't playing or writing. It's fair to say, music and lyrics are not just something he loves to engage himself in; to him, they are a way of life.