Heaven 17 – The Luxury Gap

“Work hard.” That’s what I think he’s saying, anyway.

Thirty-five years ago this week, Heaven 17‘s finest album The Luxury Gap first appeared in the shops. Having seen some initial fleeting visions of success a few years earlier with The Human League and previously with the frankly awful debut album Penthouse and Pavement (1981), Let Me Go had hinted at the new sound in late 1982, and then suddenly Temptation took the charts by storm, and history was made.

It opens with Crushed by the Wheels of Industry, an entertaining mix of steelwork-inspired sounds with soulful vocal delivery, daft lyrics, and a whole load of other things. It’s a representative way to open the album, and somehow manages to be both awful and brilliant at the same time. It’s a line that Heaven 17 have always trodden that line with care, and in this instance it works rather well. This was released as the fourth and final single in September 1983.

Who’ll Stop the Rain is next, with its punchy funk bass line. It isn’t really single material (although they were big enough at the time that the US saw a promo version), but it’s a good album track. It does pale into insignificance next to the brilliant Let Me Go, though.

If you need a reason to buy this album, Let Me Go should be it. For the first time, Heaven 17 had recorded a catchy, beautiful, brilliant song that really allowed Glenn Gregory to show off his full vocal prowess. It’s an odd electronic hit, sounding now more like something from 1987 than 1982, and perhaps it’s that out-of-time quality that makes it so special. It deserved to be an enormous hit, but never even scraped the top 40 in the UK. In the US, it’s pretty much their only hit single.

Nothing was ever really going to stand out after that, but Key to the World is a decent, if somewhat generic attempt. In general, this album is all good pop music, and this track closes Side A in an understated but upbeat way.

Side B opens with the number 2 hit and second single Temptation. Broken down into its constituent pieces, it’s an odd track with a very loud screechy female vocal, but somehow it’s also catchy, wonderfully delivered as a duet, and really rather brilliant. If you have any doubts about this song, picture yourself in early 1980s Thatcherite Britain just a matter of months after the end of the Falklands War, and it might make a lot more sense. Or maybe not.

Either way, the downbeat charm of third single Come Live with Me is welcome at this point. Definitely among the three exceptional tracks (alongside Let Me Go and Temptation), the lyrics are definitely a bit unnerving at the start (“I was 37, you were 17”) – it’s hard to imaging a statement like that making the top ten now. But then there’s that great lyric about “If half the things they say / Are quarter true of me,” which absolutely can’t be faulted, and if you disagree, you’re wrong.

Lady Ice and Mr. Hex is the one track on here that I really don’t understand. At best, I try to view it as a comment on early 1980s consumerism, but even that seems a bit stretched. Maybe they just thought the album needed a funky showtune at this point.

We Live So Fast is next, a brilliantly daft-speed track which would have probably been the best track on several of Heaven 17‘s less successful works. Here, it’s pedestrian, but that’s far from a bad thing. It’s far from perfect, but the standard on this album really is pretty high.

One thing that’s clever is only having nine tracks over a 37 minute duration, so it really grabs you by the throat and keeps you listening. We’re on to the final track already, the atmospheric The Best Kept Secret, which cleverly if unsubtly echoes Let Me Go to loop things back to the hit that got this album started. It’s a great closing piece for what really is a great album.

So all in all, The Luxury Gap may not be the best album ever recorded, unless perhaps you were there to hear it in context at the time, but it’s close. Even if you weren’t there or fully paying attention at the time, there’s plenty to enjoy here. Highly recommended.

You can still find the 2006 remastered version of The Luxury Gap at all major retailers.

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