The British music newspaper Melody Maker once ran an entertaining piece about how The Human League have to stage a comeback every time there’s a World Cup – and it held true, ignoring a few minor delays, until their total failure to reappear in 1998. As time passes, their triumphant returns seem to get further apart, but at least 2001’s Secrets was very much worth the wait.
It’s fifteen years old this week, which means that more time has passed between its release and the present day than passed between Don’t You Want Me and the previous comeback, Tell Me When in 1995. A difficult thought to convey in words, but a somewhat worrying one.
By 2001, The Human League were pillars of the establishment, but not everyone had quite figured that out yet. So Secrets saw them, perhaps for the last time, trying to do something contemporary but that harked back to their earlier days in truly wonderful form. It opens with the brilliant single All I Ever Wanted, which is every bit as good as any of their previous hits, just not quite as successful.
Between the potential hits are a series of short instrumentals, which are very firmly rooted in the Yorkshire of the late 1970s. The first, Nervous, is warm, soft, and cuddly, and leads us into the somewhat disconcerting Love Me Madly?, which in the absence of an actual second single was released by fans with a series of remixes a couple of years after the album appeared.
A delightful synth line introduces my favourite track on here, the adorable Shameless. As with everything on here, it’s a sweet pop song with a very strong analogue leaning. Phil Oakey‘s synth geek leanings seem to have shaped The Human League more and more in their latter years, if this is anything to go by. Then we get another instrumental, 122.3BPM.
I’m not hugely excited by Never Give Your Heart. It’s still pretty good, but the vocals are perhaps a little bit too uncomfortable or monotonic. But, before long, another instrumental Ran turns up to guide us through to the brilliant The Snake.
If you don’t know the area, Snake Pass is the high road from Sheffield to Manchester, via the Upper Derwent Reservoirs and Glossop. The song largely just describes the landmarks along the route, often in slightly daft fashion, but somehow it feels rather spiritual, and we’re appropriately guided to the next track by another local landmark in instrumental form, Ringinglow.
Liar (you’re a liar – you just can’t help repeating it) is another great pop song, and since we’re alternating between songs and instrumentals by this stage, Lament is a great instrumental to go with it. By this point in the album, the stage is firmly set.
Then there’s the more downtempo Reflections, which you can’t help but feel is probably a very meaningful piece for Phil Oakey, dealing with “demons of the mind”. Either way, it’s an unusually vulnerable song for the pop trio.
The instrumental Brute carries us to the “brutally” cheerful Sin City, another fantastic pop song. Honestly if this album had come out in 1981, pretty much any of the vocal tracks could have been singles – it just showed how far we had come by 2001 that only one of them was.
After the final instrumental Release, the album’s coda comes in the form of You’ll Be Sorry, an utterly brilliant and entirely expected pop piece. This is firm proof, were it ever needed, of The Human League‘s brilliance, and honestly if there had been any justice, Secrets really should have topped the charts. But there isn’t, and history has forgotten about the moment the northern pop geniuses tried to recapture our hearts. Even if they had firmly missed the World Cup.
Famously the record company folded shortly after the release of Secrets, so brand new copies are hard to come by, but you’ll find second hand copies all over the place.