Heaven 17 – Bigger Than America

Poor Heaven 17. By 1996, nearly two decades into their careers, they really hadn’t produced anything new of note under that name in over a decade. After their fame subsided with the reasonable How Men Are album (1984), just two studio albums and a couple of compilations had followed, and so Bigger Than America was truly a comeback.

But Dive is brilliant. It starts with some subtle analogue warbles, and builds into something that’s every bit as good as Let Me Go. The line that mixes “hear” with “here” could easily be tacky and awful, but somehow it works perfectly here. What a great opening track!

First single Designing Heaven follows. Unsurprisingly when you hear it, it wasn’t an enormous hit, but it’s reasonably good, and probably deserved a place somewhere in the Top 40. If you’re ever bored, track down the single to hear the laughably bad German version Den Himmel Designen.

Second (and final) single We Blame Love comes next, actually perhaps a better choice of single than the first, but it didn’t get any attention outside of Germany, where all your favourite eighties acts went to die.

Another Big Idea is next, and is largely fantastic. It might have been a while since Heaven 17 were this good, but they definitely had the right idea. In fact, the first reminder that they had been lost in the wilderness for over a decade at this point is on track 5, the pointless Freak! It contains the lyric “You’re an X and I’m a Y / Just take a look into the sky”. Which is pretty much all you need to know.

Changes are definitely afoot at this point in the album. You might have been wondering what exactly the title was about, but it isn’t until the title track that you really get a clue. Bigger Than America seems to be an attempt to poke fun at the USA, but a fair proportion of the lyrics don’t really make sense unfortunately. The chorus is good, though (despite rhyming “car” with “Ameri-car”), and the analogue squawks are fully in attendance.

From here onwards, my memory was suggesting the tracks would all start to merge into one, but that isn’t really true. Unreal Everything is a nice track, if somewhat forgettable – the only thing you’ll really remember here is the pleasant theremin (or portamento?) line that makes it sound like something out of a 1950s science fiction film. The Big Dipper takes some more cracks at the USA, this time hitting harder and arguably hitting the target more accurately.

Do I Believe? is really brilliant – fueled primarily by enormous analogue noises, but there’s a great song in there as well. Resurrection Man is a bit misguided, but towards the end things become pleasantly mellow, with the sweet and gentle Maybe Forever and then the uplifting An Electronic Prayer. The electronic howl that closes the album is an exemplary way to finish matters.

So this was Heaven 17‘s contribution to the 1990s. It was good, but was largely irrelevant and went ignored by most people. What it does seem to have done is spurred them to start playing live for the first time in their career, and so, a decade or so later, they finally came to be seen as the legends they are. As long as they stick to playing tracks from their better albums, anyway.

The CD version of Bigger Than America has long since fallen out of print, but you can still find digital downloads and second hand copies in most places.

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One thought on “Heaven 17 – Bigger Than America

  1. Excellent review; I pulled this CD off my storage shelves for the first time in 3 years and it brings me back to the first day I ripped it open. Fantastic first 4 songs (especially We Blame Love through headphones); honestly it took me about 2 weeks to even get past Freak. Surprisingly my 12 year old daughter didn’t complain at all during the first 4 songs (IHHO everything I play sucks).

    Spent many hours catching up on the site and still find it in the top 3 (I lurk on PPM and a few others).

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