Pop music and philosophy rarely ever converge. Maybe that’s because at its heart, pop music is all about skimming the surface, admittedly. Look too deeply, and you risk breaking the illusion, ruining the enchantment. Actually, almost breaking the illusion is a risk that most great pop songs are willing to take; that’s part of what makes them great. Philosophy, on the other hand, often won’t even admit that there is a surface.
I can think of no mainstream pop album inspired entirely by a single book of philosophy — especially not one that spawned a chart-topping hit — except for the self-titled, long out-of-print 1986 release by the English synthpop duo known as The Lover Speaks. Sure, some other British pop outfits that were assembled during the New Romantic era of the mid-1980s, such as Green Gartside’s brainchild Scritti Politti, wanted to make sure we knew that they’d paid close attention to lectures on cultural criticism during their days at university. They also wanted us to know how much they genuinely loved the philosophical ideas they’d encountered, and that they could prove those ideas might feel right at home in the lyrics of a pop song, unlikely as it seemed.
Whereas Scritti Politti, still a successful and quietly lauded band today, cribbed its moniker from Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci and recorded an early song in praise of French deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida, The Lover Speaks, comprised of musicians David E. D. Freeman and Joseph Hughes, based its one and only officially released album on Roland Barthes’ treatise A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. Freeman composed the lyrics for all ten of the album’s songs, so the links to Barthes’ text can be credited to him. In fact, three of the songs’ titles — “Absent One,” “Of Tears,” and “This Can’t Go On!” — are drawn directly from the various subtitled sections of Barthes’ book.
“No More ‘I Love You’s’” is the most recognizable of the album’s tracks. Though it experienced minor success in The Lover Speaks’ original version, peaking at #58 on the U.K. singles chart in 1986, former Eurythmics’ vocalist Annie Lennox revived the song for her cover album, Medusa, in 1995, taking the song to #2 on the U.K. charts and to #23 in the United States. The connection between the two acts was Lennox’s Eurythmics bandmate Dave Stewart, who had initially been instrumental in getting The Lover Speaks’ demo tape into the hands of Jimmy Iovine, the legendary rock producer made famous by his work with the likes of Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, Patti Smith, The Pretenders, and U2. Iovine’s sterling production values are usually cited for giving The Lover Speaks its distinctive and rather timeless sound, balanced somewhere between addictive rhythm-guitar hooks, synthesized basslines with discreet R&B underpinnings, and ’60s girl-group doo-wop choruses. (As a B-side for “No More ‘I Love You’s,’” The Lover Speaks turned in a skillful, pounding rendition of Dusty Springfield’s dramatic “I Close My Eyes and Count to Ten.”)
But back to Roland Barthes and his book’s effect on the album’s overall tone and themes. Near the beginning of his text, Barthes proposes that his study will present a portrait and “a discursive site: the site of someone speaking within himself, amorously, confronting the other (the loved object), who does not speak.” Not among Barthes’ most referenced or celebrated works, A Lover’s Discourse is an abstract, elliptical rumination on the things we say to ourselves, silently, when under the spell of the person we most desire. The album The Lover Speaks opens with the tongue-in-cheek observation, “I am a spy, spying on myself. / A tragic subject.” The songs that follow share the same state of mind that Barthes evokes: romantic, somber, ecstatic, obsessive, tortured, erratic, ever swooning on the verge of nearly losing control, but somehow managing to keep things together, for fear that seeing you fall apart would surely make the loved one flee.
Perhaps the album’s most impressive aspect is how precisely it echoes and embodies through its very form the premise that Barthes sets forth. Each song is a public declaration and vocalization of feeling, yet it’s also understood that these vocalizations are a kind of interior monologue, inside the head of the artist/singer, and also inside the ear of the solitary listener. The lover “speaks” by singing — his thoughts and emotions are fully realized only as they’re sung — both to himself and to a silent, distant other, the recipient of his musicalized missives. In an extended discourse on an important, vexing little phrase, Barthes suggests, “I-love-you belongs neither in the realm of linguistics nor in that of semiology. Its occasion (the point of departure for speaking it) would be, rather, Music.”
The realm of popular music itself, of course, would probably never have existed without those three little words, nor without all of the requisite bliss and havoc that they leave in their wake. Barthes reduces them (“Je t’aime”) to a single word, sign, or concept, “a sublime, solemn, trivial word.” This jaded sensibility is highlighted in the chorus lyrics of “Every Lover’s Sign,” the opening number of The Lover Speaks: “Every word, every lover’s sign we make has been made before. / Every squeeze, every tricky touch we feel has been felt before.” There’s something reassuring about such an endless, cyclical history of human emotion, but there’s also something disquieting, boring, and absurd about it. Romantic love, even at its most authentic, is always on some level a worn cliché — hard to live with, yet equally hard to live without.
That inherent contradiction shapes the litany at the core of “No More ‘I Love You’s,’” which attempts, like the majority of pop songs, to process the stages of heartbreak in love’s aftermath. Here, David Freeman does so via the linguistic trajectory outlined by Barthes, rejecting the lost attachment not entirely actively, but with a clear sense of relief and resignation, liberation and sorrow. Between repetitions of the title, Freeman contemplates, “A language is leaving me. / A language is leaving me exiled. / Changes are shifting me outside the words.”
The character whom Freeman enacts in these songs is always aware of (and made weary by) the ridiculous tensions produced by the lover’s predicament. The first verse of “Still Faking This Art of Love” best describes the situation: “Stampeding feelings is an art today. / Cry-nervous flirtings of a modern sonneteer. / Valentino eyes — such a drama! / That haunting smile, could it try to be more charming?” Yet the tone never fully veers into cynicism or away from sincerity.
Strikingly, Freeman’s sometimes restrained, sometimes wailing vocals are counterpointed throughout the album by those of a female singer, June Miles-Kingston, an ex-girlfriend of the band’s instrumentalist, Joseph Hughes. The way in which their vocals intertwine and often seem to blend into one another brings to mind one of Barthes’ key points about the gender divide in traditional heteronormative relationships. In his section titled “The Absent One,” Barthes writes, “Woman is faithful (she waits), man is fickle (he sails away, he cruises). It is woman who gives shape to absence, elaborates its fiction, for she has time to do so…. It follows that in any man who utters the other’s absence something feminine is declared: this man who waits and who suffers from his waiting is miraculously feminized.” Granted, this sexist notion is somewhat outdated now, but it still holds sway in the majority of heterosexual pairings.
As an argument against this idea, Freeman sings on the languid, down-tempo “Absent One,” in a mournful voice that’s unmistakably masculine, “And here I am again, waiting.” At other points on the album, Freeman’s impassioned delivery climbs far beyond his standard register, blurring the lines of gender even further by intentionally soaring to rather “feminine” heights of longing in falsetto.
“Of Tears,” the closing coda of The Lover Speaks, is sung — or cried — almost exclusively in that lofty, pain-stricken range. Freeman offers an explanation of the song’s vocals alongside its printed lyrics in the album’s liner notes: “I decided not to sing the lyrics here, but instead to image the written ‘I’ by means of an expressive falsetto which, for me at least, speaks more of tears than had I performed the vocal. Fidelity to the song, however, invites me to include the absent words.” Aside from songs by such vocalists as Elizabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins and Jónsi Birgisson of Sigur Rós, who choose to sing in half-imagined languages of their own devising, I can’t recall any other pop/rock song that’s presented entirely in this fashion. It’s a fascinating move, one that’s both literal and poetic. Barthes ends his section “In Praise of Tears” by citing Franz Schubert’s popular 1818 ballad “Lob der Tränen,” a musical setting of a poem by August Wilhelm Schlegel: “Words, what are they? One tear will say more than all of them.”
Speaking of poetry, David Freeman also authored a book of erotic verse, Voices of Passion, which was meant to coincide with the release of The Lover Speaks’ eponymous debut album, as a kind of extension of the album’s lyrical motifs. The brief biographical note on the book’s back cover mentions that David Freeman “is singer/songwriter with The Lover Speaks,” and the volume of poems is also plugged in the liner notes of the single for “No More ‘I Love You’s’” (although there’s no mention of the book in the liner notes of the album itself). Published by T.L.S. Publishing in 1987, this tiny collection of poems — somehow overwrought and under-wrought at once — must be extremely scarce these days. I was fortunate to purchase a copy inexpensively from a dealer of rare books in London; it’s a wonderful novelty item of ’80s New Romantic memorabilia, even if the poems aren’t nearly as distilled as the lyrics that found their way onto The Lover Speaks, where they have the music that’s necessary to cushion them.
What’s most apparent about these erotic poems is that they’re young. One of the poems even begins, “I am proud of my youth. / I will be young or nothing.” Those lines capture abundantly the reckless beauty and short-lived feeling of invincibility behind the whole New Romantic movement. The Lover Speaks is an album that could have been created only by someone young enough to stay unfazed by the successive treacheries of the lover’s discourse. But it could also have been created only by someone who’s right on the cusp of outgrowing his youth and youthful escapades, bidding them farewell with a sigh of relief, a final utterance that can still be savored today as a blatant, exquisite reminder.