Sunday, January 21, 2018
1982 was a breakout year for Colin Hay and his mates. The Men At Work had put in their time since their formation in 1978 getting tight as a performing unit. In November of 1981, Business as Usual was released. Massive success followed. While folks were whistling "Downunder", record buyers sent both the single and LP to the top of the pops. In the midst of a heavy touring/promotional schedule, the group managed to commit a second collection of songs to tape. Less whimsical than their first in terms of lyrical subject matter, Cargo was shelved for some time before the record company gave the green light for issue in the spring of 1983. The executive decision was directly related to the aforementioned success of Business as Usual. No need to have competing product in the marketplace when sales were still brisk.
Who can it be now?
Heralded by the eerie sound of wind, footsteps and chiming bells, "Dr. Heckyll and Mr. Jive" kicks open the door with force, putting a slight spin on the classic tale of a mad scientist who alters himself (physically and mentally) by downing a beaker of his latest chemical experiment. An arresting tune, the refrain is clever and sets a jittery tone for what follows. Suspend your disbelief for a moment: Imagine that this is merely a set up for a hallucinogenic sequence of events that befall him after he drinks his potion. The good doctor embarks on very unsettling trip, the narrative of which is captured in the nine songs that follow.
I can't get to sleep...
"Overkill" is a perfect pop confection: excellent hook line, taut verses with an instantly catchy chorus. Tailor made for maximum radio exposure. The lyric is restless, with nervous tension around every corner. It is here where a confusing fog steadily creeps across the brain of Mr. Jive. What is real? He isn't quite sure.
Ghosts appear and fade away...
Realizing that no such concept is actually being rolled out to listeners by the composers (mainly Hay with two contributions from Ron Strykert), those of you who are still playing the home game can still have some fun reimagining the intent of this inventive set. The protagonist flashes back to the well-meaning, yet mundane, parental lectures of his childhood ("Settle Down My Boy"), has some surreal fun in his room ("Upstairs in My House") and ends up ruminating on the past ("No Sign of Yesterday") as act one comes to a somber close. Flipping over to the next side, reality intrudes with a comment on military madness in the form of "It's a Mistake". Definite highlight of the pack. In keeping with the tense atmosphere of that era, the lyric alludes to the futility of the perpetual nuclear standoff between superpowers. Escalating one-upmanship has but one catastrophic climax. As with all other tracks here, the six string interplay between Hay and Strykert is very well thought out. Their tones are captured expertly in the mix, never stepping on each other. Cigar goes to multi-instrumentalist Greg Ham (who is sadly no longer with us) for his work throughout. From the haunting saxophone responses that grace "Overkill" to the killer flute solo (seriously) that completely lifts "No Restrictions" into the stratosphere, he leaves no blemish on this disc. He even takes a rare lead vocal on "I Like To". Split personality disorder may be the best descriptor for the overall mood as each construction whips you in various directions, with dizzying highs and lows explored equally. The opening remark about a post-drink song cycle centered on "Dr. Heckyll" was made in the spirit of fun, though the jarring 180 degree jolt that takes you from the exuberance of "High Wire" to the reggae-fried, morose strains of "Blue For You" adds fuel to the idea of a dreamlike thread running throughout the program.
Give me no restrictions, in what I do or say...
Back on earth, everyone brings a frenetic energy to their parts on this very underrated record. They were a hell of a good live band, too. Finding a receptive audience in the commercial sweepstakes, Cargo would also prove to be the final bow for the quintet, as the rhythm section was asked to leave before sessions began for their third full length project (Two Hearts). Strykert departed close to the end of those studio dates, leaving Hay and Ham to carry on with other musicians on the subsequent supporting tour.
Remaining a very compelling listen, my vinyl copy sounds as fresh today as it did when it first floated down from the sky by parachute, landing gently on my turntable back in '83. In addition to strong material, it is not weighed down by the ugly production methods (heavy reverb on everything, cheesy drum machine noises pushed way up front in the mix, etc.) that would soon be ubiquitous as the eighties progressed. Colorful and imaginative as its cover art, Cargo is quite worthy of (re)investigation. Be careful of what you drink before putting it on.