Having shied away from the limelight for the best part of the '90s to deal with his well-publicized health problems, former Frankie Goes to Hollywood frontman Holly Johnson returned at the tail-end of the decade, more buoyant and defiant than ever on his third solo album, Soulstream. Co-produced with Steve Lovell (Blur, Elastica) at his home studio, and released through his own Pleasuredome label, the outspoken Scouser might have avoided the record company interference that plagued his troublesome 1991 sophomore, Dreams That Money Can't Buy, but unfortunately, he has still failed to learn from its mistakes. Like its predecessor, the majority of its 11 tracks feel at least five years out of date, from the wishy-washy, synth-led midtempo songs "Hope" and "Don't Give Up," to the rather misguided, smooth jazz cover of the Animals' "House of the Rising Sun," to the early New Jack Swing beats of "The Best Invention." The retro stylings are more forgivable when Johnson's distinctive, powerful vocals and life-affirming lyrics are let loose on the dancefloor, with the infectious camp Euro-disco of "Hallelujah" and "Disco Heaven," the latter a joyous lament to the friends he lost to AIDS, and impossible to resist. The William Orbit-esque production of the empowering opener "Lady Luck," and the subtle trip-hop-tinged title track show that he still occasionally had his finger on the pulse. But unnecessary reworkings of 1984 chart-topper "The Power of Love" and the 1994 flop, gay anthem "Legendary Children (All of Them Queer)," only highlight the creative rut he appeared to be stuck in. Soulstream isn't without its charms, but after such a lengthy absence, Johnson needed to recapture the glorious pop spirit of his previous outfit if he was to make any impression on a chart scene vastly different from when he left it, something its clichéd and disappointingly bland sound resolutely failed to do.
by Jon O'Brien