The coolest thing about this album is that it entered the UK charts at #2. Gary Numan is a living legend of course, and the history of electronic music would be incomplete without him. But man, was this guy ever left for dead commercially – there was a time when a Gary Glitter comeback seemed more likely. In the early 80’s Numan shifted from being uninterested in hit singles to being really desperate for one, leading to a series of unfortunate choices that left him a prime target for mockery in the UK press. He’d adopted funk, hired some backup singers, and decided that the best way to sell records was to load ’em up with saxophone. All of which was like seeing your dog try on a pair of jeans. The story of Numan’s commercial collapse is best observed through his album covers; from 20’s noir to Mad Max to Blondie McSunglasses and his Blue Hair/White Face phase, Numan was searching fruitlessly for anything that would stick. Hard to believe the “floating head” look of Telekon would be something like an artistic peak for him, but there it is. By the time of Machine + Soul he’d been tucked into the lower right corner, as if to say “pay no attention to the man whose name is on the record”. After selling approximately 7 copies of that record, he decided he was due for a change. Even the president of his fan club (who he’d later marry) had to look him in the face and tell him that he sucked now.
And so, Gary Numan became Gothy Numan, with heavy guitars and angry lyrics, and portraits of Numan where he looked brooding instead of merely upset. At the same time (perhaps due to his new music no longer being so embarrassing), Numan’s classic work began to enjoy a bit of a resurgence – Trent Reznor name-checked him, Fear Factory covered him, and Basement Jaxx had a massive hit that sampled him. Numan himself started having decent-sized hits again, even if their airplay was limited to the Industrial Rock stations. No matter, Numan was back, and for once his hair stopped changing color every two years. From laughingstock to elder statesman, just like that.
What was incredible about all this is that Numan was still relatively young when the comeback started – Sacrifice was released while he was still in his mid-30’s, giving him plenty of time to enjoy his return to decency. As such he’s generally taken his time between albums, entering the studio only when the cries of “Will Gary Numan ever release another album?” get too loud. Numan himself realized this – two years after his last one, he created a Kickstarter for the next album in order to hold his feet to the fire some. It almost worked – Savage was intended for a 2016 release, but it wound up coming out late in 2017.
I wouldn’t blame Numan for taking his time – this is an important album for a few reasons. For one, it marks a return to his tradition of dodgy cover photos; while Steampunk Gary barely registers on the scale, Numan dressed as Sub-Zero from Mortal Kombat certainly does. Secondly, his last album Splinter was a critical and commercial success, with a number of reviewers (including yours truly) considering it his best work since the good ol’ days. Numan himself apparently felt the same way. As much as I liked Pure‘s vision of a polished Numa2.0, Splinter was one of those records that ties an entire career together. Savage is a sequel to that album, this time using the subtitle Songs From a Broken World (the last was Songs From a Broken Mind). Such things are always a bit worrisome but it’s not quite fair to ding him for being homogeneous – wasn’t The Pleasure Principle essentially ten variations on the same song? By this point you kind of know what you’re getting with Gary.
As such, Savage is full of brooding verses and booming choruses, the same tried n’ true formula that Nine Inch Nails et al have been perfecting since the late 80’s. It is not quite as diverse as Splinter was, but there are some new wrinkles here – Middle Eastern instrumentation, the return of his hallmark synthtone, and some backing vocals performed by his oldest daughter. He shifts back and forth between gothic ballad and desolate shredder, though in general the tempos and overall mood is pretty consistent from front to back. I dig that there are so many ballads on here – that’s always been Numan’s strong suit, and besides it offers some relief from the oppressive sound design on here; everything is grinding guitars, skittering industrial drums, and blaring synths. Granted, the record still sounds great – it’s very well-produced, and Numan’s voice is still perfect for this sort of thing, proving that you can be aggressive and haunting without screaming your head off. It even goes into fully-blown epic mode in the end, sending “If I Said” into a thundering, string-heavy coda, and then ending with “Broken”, which has a sweeping, cinematic scope. You hear Gary flirt with this sort of thing on prior albums, but this one really goes for it.
As usual it mostly comes down to the songs themselves, and luckily, they’re pretty much uniformly excellent. Yes, he digs into his bag of tricks quite often, doing the thunderous synth chorus, the wordless emoting, and the sudden dynamic shift a few times over, to the point where it’s kind of hard to tell the songs apart on the first few listens. “My Name is Ruin” and “Pray For the Pain You Serve” both seem to draw off a particular template, the same one used on “Love Hurt Bleed” four years prior, but the tunes are good enough that I don’t really mind. In some sense “Bed of Thorns” is the standout track, a catchy Arabic-flavored slow-burner that fills the role that “Walking With Shadows” did on Pure. But as a whole it’s one of those albums that kind of surprises me each time out, as I tend to forget how good some of the individual tracks are.
So yes, it’s a deserving #2, and come to think of it, probably a Top 5 album in Numan’s career, when it’s all said and done. I always thought that Splinter was a top-tier effort for him, basically on par with Replica and The Pleasure Principle, and Savage is only like a half-step away from that. As good as some of his post-resurgence stuff has been I’ve often got the feeling that he’s been just kind of wading into it feet-first; it’s a little too mindful of what the olden-day Numan fan and the modern-day industrial junkie might think. Come to think of it, it’s that sort of mindset that ruined an entire section of his career; when Numan’s at his best, he’s writing for himself, and these last couple of albums feel loose and ambitious in a way they really haven’t since Dance. Good on him, and good on his fans for putting him back on the charts.