Level 42

Staring at the Sun

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In the early 1980s, most newly successful British bands like Duran Duran and Depeche Mode were knee deep in the synth pop/new romantic/new wave/post-punk/whatever movement. But Level 42 distinguished itself by combining R&B and jazz influences (Earth, Wind & Fire, Stanley Clarke, Average White Band) with a strong pop sensibility, churning out a series of successful albums and Top Ten singles. The band began to achieve major U.S. success by 1986 with the albums World Machine and Running in the Family. Unfortunately, U.S. success was short-lived; Staring at the Sun, released in 1988, tanked, for an obvious reason: the album just isn't good.

Level 42's most visible members had always been bassist/vocalist Mark King and keyboardist/vocalist Mike Lindup. Founding members Phil and Boon Gould, the band's primary songwriters, left the group prior to the making of Staring at the Sun. Level 42 would never fully recover from the loss of the two key players; their departure severely affected the band's sound. Veteran session musicians Alan Murphy (guitar) and Gary Husband (drums) joined Level 42 the year Staring at the Sun was released; while their talent and capabilities are obvious, the lifeless performances on the album suggest a severe lack of chemistry and direction. The usual awe-inspiring musicianship displayed on the band's previous releases is non-existent here. (Murphy died in 1989.)

Considering the poor quality of the songs on Staring at the Sun, the sluggish performances are perfectly understandable. The rock-ish "Heaven in my Hands" is catchy enough, and the Mike Lindup-penned ballad "Silence" is the album's best song...but the rest of this stuff! "Man" sounds like bad '70s art rock (complete with pretentious spoken word narration), "Two Hearts Collide" is flat and completely void of purpose, and "I Don't Know Why" boasts some of the most inane lyrics ever written for an album by a major band ("I don't know why...I love you like I do...but baby I love you...and always I'll be true"....ugh.)

Worst of all, Mark King who, over the course of the band's existence was becoming a more expressive and effective vocalist, sounds bored and uninspired, particularly on "Two Hearts Collide." And Mike Lindup's complementary falsetto background vocals are barely used this time around.

It might be easy to excuse the band for losing enthusiasm; after all, it lost two key members along the way, and perhaps Level 42 was pressured into repeating its newfound American success. But this album is unforgivable. It became a big hit in the U.K., charting at number two, but went nowhere in the States. It would take Level 42 several more years to release an album that would even come close to restoring the quality of its previous releases (Forever Now, which became the band's swan song). Now out of print, Staring at the Sun is, by far, the least essential album in Level 42's catalog.

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