Lying With Animals and Children

Savage Garden hit in 1997, the same teen-idol year as Hanson. Hanson was the cute-and-bubbly Michael Jackson. Savage Garden was the icy, sharp, scared Michael Jackson. Hanson was the Jackson 5 Michael Jackson. Savage Garden was the solo Michael, the dirty Diana, the bloodstains on the carpet, the people eating you like you're a vegetable. The Michael Jackson of rage and terror. The first Savage Garden album was very good—lush synth-and-guitar rock, the right setting for Darren Hayes's thin blade of a voice and his pretty songs of dysfunction and breakdown. "She's taking her time making up the reasons, to justify all the hurt inside. . . . " Complicated ideas made to sound like ordinary conversation.

The worldwide hit "To the Moon and Back" (a Bowie-ette waits for her rocketship, her Major Tom, her life on Mars, her life away from mental disease and psychobabble) stiffed twice in America, while in between these respective stiffings the worst song on the album, a sappy little thing called "Truly Madly Deeply," became a megasmash here and has since been certified by the International Brotherhood of Wedding Musicians as the most requested song of the late '90s.

Now there's a new album, Affirmation, and the problem with it isn't just that it has too much sap and not enough ice, but that the melodies don't stick (don't stick any better than "Truly Madly Deeply," that is, which maybe is more of a comment on how they'll stick, and where).

There are five songs that are worth listening to more than once (tracks 2, 6, 9, 10, and 11, if you're interested); one of these, "You Can Still Be Free," is actually in shooting range of greatness, though it's fast for a ballad and slow for a dance track, so it probably won't make its way onto the radio. The stuff not in the relistenable five isn't awful to hear (even more than once), since Darren Hayes's voice is always beautiful and there are nice leaps into falsetto, etc.; in general, though, the melodies tend toward the blah, and the full arrangements (which worked so well on the first LP) just get in the way of the voice. And some lyrics are sentimental crap ("I knew I loved you before I met you/I have been waiting all my life") and some others are abominably stupid. ("I want to live careless and free, like animals"—as a matter of fact, this particular number, "The Animal Song," may win some kind of award for Song That Concentrates the Most Stupidity into Four-and-a-Half Minutes. "Animals and children tell the truth, they never lie." Like, has this guy been near a child in the last 12 years?) Anyway, on these songs it's nice when Darren Hayes's voice rises above the blahness and the stupidity. But on the five songs I really like, the voice's pyrotechnics belong to the songs rather than being a necessary escape from them.

In teen pop, 1999 has been the Year of the Song Not the Singer; lots of so-so performers hitting with great material. And here we've got the good singer without the good songs. Maybe next year he'll put it together.

 
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