Personnel: Richard Barrett, Matt Backer (guitar); Anne Dudley (piano, keyboards); Stephen Darrell Smith (piano); Peter Gordeno, Dave West, Rob Fusari (keyboards, programming); Richard Brook (drums); Gina Foster, Carol Kenyon (background vocals).
Recording information: Angel Studios.
Photographer: Henrik Knudsen.
Arranger: Anne Dudley.
While on-stage at a show commemorating the 30th anniversary of ABC's undeniably classic album The Lexicon of Love, Martin Fry had an epiphany. Why not make a sequel? Something that captured the sweeping vision of the original, but also added the wisdom of three decades gained by living through the endless ups and downs of love. Working with Anne Dudley, who arranged the strings on the original Lexicon, producer Gary Stevenson, and a few songwriters, Fry did exactly what he set out to do on 2016's The Lexicon of Love II.
The album gets the majestic, cinematic scope of the original down perfectly, with Dudley's epic string arrangements embellished with grand pianos, some fluid fretless bass playing, impassioned backing vocals, and the occasional moment that, if you close your eyes, almost sounds like 1982 -- not only because of the musical backing, but also because Fry's voice is relatively untouched by age. While he can't hit the same falsetto notes that he could 30 years earlier, he does still sing with the same urgency and power that he used to, and that's very impressive. Of course, there are no tracks here as perfect as "The Look of Love" or "Poison Arrow," but there aren't any weak links either, and the album holds together unexpectedly well. And some of the tracks do come pretty close to the heights reached on the original Lexicon, like the swaggering disco-funk workout "Viva Love," the nautically romantic "The Ship of the Seasick Sailor," and the most 1982-like of the lot, "The Flames of Desire." There are even a couple that might have fit in on Beauty Stab (the guitar-heavy "Singer Not the Song") or Zillionaire (the slickly danceable "Confessions of a Fool").
Throughout, Fry's lyrics cast a wryly practiced eye on the travails of being a failed lover, the difficulty of making a living playing music, and the inevitable march of time. It's a melancholy journey, made even sadder by the strings that permeate everything, but it's also inspiring and always stylishly delivered. Fry and his crew of accomplices could have failed miserably trying to re-create the sound of Lexicon exactly, making it a stale nostalgic exercise that would have tarnished the original by association. Instead, they got at what makes it great -- the over the top romanticism, the audacious vocals, and the widescreen melodies -- and gave it a wiser, more thoughtful update. The Lexicon of Love II isn't exactly a return to form, since their 2008 album Traffic is a hidden gem in their catalog, but it does serve as a reminder that Martin Fry and ABC created one of the best albums of the '80s, if not ever, and they still have what it takes to come within shouting distance of those ridiculously lofty heights. ~ Tim Sendra