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Darren Hayes: Tension & the Spark

Album Notes

As one half of Australian boy band Savage Garden, falsetto-voiced Darren Hayes became the unofficial poster boy for the sensitive new man of the '90s, thanks to his often schmaltzy brand of adult contemporary pop, which was lapped up by a willing public in both the U.S. and Europe as well as his homeland. As accomplished as Spin, his first record since their acrimonious 2000 split was, its blend of George Michael-esque R&B and soft rock ballads didn't exactly indicate a hugely chameleon-like solo career -- which makes his reinvention on follow-up The Tension and the Spark, a highly personal self-penned 13-track set of songs evoking the swirling electronica of Madonna's Ray of Light and the sophisticated synth pop of Pet Shop Boys, even more surprising. Sure, its electro-based dance-pop sound isn't akin to Hayes suddenly veering into thrash metal or Celtic folk territory, but compared to the MOR leanings of his previous output, it's an adventurous and ambitious step forward for an artist whose four-million-selling debut suggests he could quite easily have stuck to what he knew best. Largely co-written and co-produced with Robert Conley, whose band Specificus previously toured with Hayes, it's a subtle and introspective record that tackles angst-ridden insecurity ("Unlovable"), the cult of celebrity ("Pop!ular"), and his discomfort at being idolized by fans ("Hero"). However, The Tension and the Spark is far from being a bleak and downbeat ode to self-pity. "Love and Affection" is a sizzling fusion of twisted synths, acidic basslines, and throbbing beats that recalls the experimental club sounds of Mirwais, "I Like the Way" is a slinky attempt at glam-disco that could have been lifted from any of Goldfrapp's dancier albums, and the trip-hop-influenced "Dublin Sky" is an uplifting acoustic number that provides the perfect gap-bridger between his old and new sound. But the album is undoubtedly more intriguing when it's at its most melancholic. Opening track "Darkness" is a brooding slice of ambient electro, full of William Orbit-style sound effects, atmospheric strings, and ethereal guitar hooks, which brilliantly sets up both the album's sound and lyrical themes of dark and light, while "I Forgive You" throws some gothic pop and alternative country influences into the mix on a bitter tale of contempt that allows Hayes to release his inner menacing side before collapsing in a frenzy of unsettling electronic bleeps. This sudden change in direction won't receive half the attention that Robbie's Brit-pop or Justin's R&B-funk makeovers did, but just as convincing and effortless, it's one that has undeniably resulted in the album of Hayes' career. ~ Jon O'Brien


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