Yes, Gary Numan’s jumped a bandwagon, but the former new-wave hitmaker has done it with style.
By Brett Milano
A funny thing happened at the Paradise Monday night when Gary Numan hit into “Cars” — the British singer’s greatest (and practically only) US hit, and the song that virtually launched the synth-pop genre. What happened was nothing — no whoops and hollers, not the applause that comes when an audience gets the one song it’s come to hear. “Cars” was played halfway through the set (not saved for the finale or encore), and the old vehicle simply came and went — surrounded by new material that got just as much mileage.
Numan’s career as a new-wave hitmaker was over by 1981 (that year’s single “I Die, You Die” was his last to get any US airplay), but he’s kept making albums since then, and the near-soldout at the Paradise was likely full of people who could name every one of them — yes, he has the kind of cult audience that pays close attention. But Numan’s been through a pretty serious transformation since then. He’s caught wind of goth/industrial music (specifically, Nine Inch Nails) and restyled himself accordingly. So goodbye to the Bowie mannerisms and Thin White Duke wardrobe: Numan, who still looks youthfully delicate at 54, now favors dark T-shirts and jet black hair — though let it be said that he still wears too much makeup. Musically it was all fearsome synth-scapes, pulsing programmed rhythms, brittle stabs of guitar, and manic soft-to-loud shifts; all not too far from Trent Reznor’s bag of tricks.
So yes, Numan’s jumped a bandwagon, but he’s done it with style. And he’ll never sound just like NiN, because he’s held on to his characteristically British sense of pop craft—the same thing that made “Cars” so memorable. Screaming like Reznor isn’t his style, so his nihilistic outbursts have real melodies attached, and the arrangements make good use of dynamics — He’ll still give you an attractive piano melody when the electronica lets up. The dark worldview may be familiar, but it’s true to the post-industrial angst that Numan’s displayed all along: Conceptually, it’s not that big a leap from 1981’s “We Are Glass” to the recent “I Am Dust.” But instead of sticking with the apocalyptic themes, he now writes just as much about love, loss and betrayal — recognizably human stuff for a guy who once claimed to be a robot.
Most of Monday’s set came from Numan’s latest album Splinter (he played nine of its 12 tracks) and the intensity didn’t let up — but it was a friendly kind of intensity, and the pop hooks were there even in his bleakest soundscapes. ‘80s oldies were kept to a minimum — aside from “Cars,” the lush ballad “Down in the Park” was the only one in the main set — but he uncorked a couple more in the encore. “I Die, You Die” became an unlikely singalong, and “Are Friends Electric” rearranged as a piano ballad with unhinged choruses, still brought a nostalgia buzz. Both tunes underlined Gary Numan’s dark secret: He’s always been more fun than he’d ever want to admit.
Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat.