Things really fell apart somewhat for The Human League after 1983’s Hysteria. The now-dead music newspaper Melody Maker once made a joke about how they would make a new album every time there was a World Cup, and it wasn’t too far from the mark. In 1986 they travelled to the US to record Human (most people will have long forgotten Crash, the album from which it appeared), and then there was an album in 1990 too, which slipped under most people’s radar, the somewhat iffy Romantic?
Five years on, with relatively little in between, and under such circumstances, Octopus would really be the “comeback” album that long forgotten artists are known for. It opens with the completely brilliant first single Tell Me When, a song which somehow manages to both represent the sound of The Human League while also sounding (for the mid 1990s) very contemporary. It was, entirely justifiably, a pretty sizable hit.
Second comes the equally brilliant These are the Days, with its enormous analogue backing noises. This is an album which is firmly bedded in the mid-1990s, but that’s absolutely no failing. As is often the case with Phil Oakey‘s lyrics, there are a few where you sit up and ask yourself whether you actually heard them sing that (“Hey, hey, live today / It’s time to put the past away,” is far from a bad lyric, but it does come a little bit out of nowhere).
Then comes the second single One Man in My Heart, wonderfully, and unusually, led by Susan Ann Sulley. It does go a bit high for her in places, and in brilliant League fashion, they have made absolutely no attempt to cover this up, but actually it’s probably her best vocal performance on any release – and it’s great to see Oakey taking a back seat too, exploring different directions for the trio. It’s very catchy too – if you’re not singing along within the first minute then you have no soul.
There are only nine tracks on here, but despite that, they have managed to take the album in some very interesting directions. The deeply atmospheric Words is another example of this – perhaps the darkest track on here, but still catchy and quite exceptional.
Side A closes with the third single Filling Up with Heaven, which wasn’t an enormous hit unfortunately, but perhaps this is understandable – it’s not as immediately catchy or exploratory as its neighbours. Still great, but not quite as great as the rest. If they could have somehow fit the exceptional non-album single Stay with Me Tonight on here, it would not have been a bad fit.
The latter half of the album is generally darker and a little less commercial. Houseful of Nothing, a song about being alone in a house and finding it a bit creepy, is every bit as good as anything else on the album, but it would be hard to imagine it as a single.
The instrumental John Cleese; is He Funny? (Yes; He is) follows. This is perhaps the one and only weak link on the album – it’s a fun, catchy instrumental, but it does seem a little pointless too. There were some remixes on the back of the Filling Up with Heaven single which took it in slightly more interesting directions, but on the album it does feel a little bit like a filler.
Never Again has no such problems. It’s fairly raw and cut back, but it’s another exemplary song. As the trio’s vocals combine for the chorus, you have to wonder slightly how things could possibly have gone so wrong for them in the late eighties, if they were capable of songs as good as this.
The closing track is Cruel Young Lover, and clocking in at just under seven minutes it’s one of the longest tracks ever recorded by The Human League. The ever changing refrain of “Do you hear me?” is a little bizarre, and it’s maybe one of the less catchy tracks on the album, but it still manages to bring the release to a close in fine form. In short, if they ever needed to prove themselves, they did so with Octopus in style.
So 1995 found The Human League at the top of a late peak in their career, and importantly so – without albums like this they could very well have remained just another forgotten act from the 80s. Everything came together perfectly – the artwork was great, the songs were flawless, and the production was brilliant.
Listening to it now, Octopus has dated somewhat, just like all The Human League‘s releases, but it’s dated in an enormous analogue mid-90s way, which would be difficult to view as anything other than A Good Thing.
The original release of Octopus seems to have drifted out of print in the last two decades, but second hand or download versions are widely available here.