It has been nearly 30 years since Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Pleasuredome appeared and made the band an almost ubiquitous presence in the UK charts during the course of 1984/5, spawning three of the ’80’s most enduring songs (Relax, Two Tribes and The Power Of Love). As for front man Holly Johnson, it’s been 15 years since he released any new solo material, but with stints on the nostalgia circuit (his appearance of Rewind Festival for example) he’s never really been away.
According to Johnson, Europa is essentially a retrospective of his songwriting skills, a suggestion which makes sense from the second the album starts. These 11 songs are deeply rooted in a musical past that once sounded new and vibrant but now appears dated and ever so slightly out of touch. In retrospective terms the fact that mid ’90s synth pop and cheesy house populate much of the album is an appropriate stylistic choice. But it’s hard to not expect a little more from Johnson. This is, after all, the man whose band were positively inflammatory and brilliantly overblown in their pomp, and who in interviews is still wonderfully barbed; still talking a good fight.
Opening up with Follow Your Heart, the album heads instantly for the dancefloor but lacks real conviction. Johnson’s lyrics are supposed to be uplifting and full of positive thinking, but they sound a little hollow despite him imploring “abandon your neurosis, it’s the best thing you can do”. There’s also the unfortunate use of the term “follow through” which, for those cursed with a childish sense of humour, is endlessly entertaining for all the wrong reasons. It’s all well put together, but as an opening gambit it suffers from sounding like a paean to self-empowerment on a badly written American teen drama (Glee fans would love it).
His voice has held up well over the years however, and as usual it’s a joy to hear him on form. If it weren’t for his presence, then many of these songs could easily be written off as half-baked synth pop. And there are times unfortunately when that voice is just not enough. The appalling Europop of Hold On Tight is beyond saving, whilst Dancing No With No Fear is by the book and uninspired. Yet despite these moments there are a few highlights. In And Out Of Love is bouncy cheesy pop that just for a moment pays homage to Morris Albert‘s Feelings and Frankie’s The Power Of Love. It’s a little straight up, but with vocal hooks this strong it’s one of the finer moments on the album. So Much It Hurts takes a more emotionally charged look at love and is a startling reminder of just what a fantastically talented vocalist Johnson is. It’s his presence that makes the song soar, because the tin-pot drums and programming threaten to derail it completely.
The title track Europa was apparently written with Vangelis in a studio situated in concrete bunker that had been designed for Hitler. This is reflected in the song’s darker tones and the theatrical zeal of Johnson’s vocals. It’s perhaps as close to the wired intensity of Two Tribes as the album ever dares to get and it provides a much needed break from the lightweight dance tunes. That said, it’s still awash in ’80s signifiers; from the guitar solo tones to the production, it’s all there.
Yet for every high point there’s something abominable or uninspired waiting to balance things out. Eurovision would find Hold On Tight a little bit obvious, the hokey synths of Lonesome Town detract from Johnson’s vocals, and the backing vocal of “leaves in a tea cup” on Heaven’s Eyes borders on parody. Thankfully there are a few moments, like the impassioned You’re In My Dreams Tonight that possess real passion, proving, as if proof were needed, that Holly Johnson is still a quite breathtaking vocalist. This album just doesn’t provide the musical support that he deserves.