Reissue Review: Heaven 17 – Bigger Than America
Having been defenestrated from Virgin Records in 1988, it took Heaven 17 eight years to get around to releasing their first independent album. By 1996, acid house and Madchester had been and gone and even Britpop was on the wane.
So Heaven 17 simply reacted to those trends by behaving as if none of them had ever existed. Bold, brash, synth-driven and resonant beneath gleaming production, Bigger Than America was an album that could have appeared at the height of the electropop revolution. 1983 ran through it like a date stamp.
Synths twitched and glistened, manifesto statements were loudly proclaimed, Glenn Gregory was in reliably magnificent, stentorian voice. Yet somehow it was different. The killer tunes and melodies weren’t there, the lyrics struggled for agenda-setting significance… and, most problematic of all, the world had moved on.
The ingredients of a great Heaven 17 album were all there but, as this (first time on vinyl) reissue shows, they just didn’t click. We Blame Love and Another Big Idea cast around for big radio-friendly tunes and failed to find them: Freak! looked to embrace techno rhythms and just sounded opportunistic.
Even their usually immaculate lyrical sure-touch deserted them. The broad-brush anti-Americanism, valid in the Reagan era, sounded a tad misplaced in the wake of the second, progressive Clinton victory. The nadir was The Big Dipper, a farrago of confused clichés about US teenage suicides, Forrest Gump, and New York being a shanty town. It sounded reactionary – the last thing Heaven 17 should ever be.
A distracted world ignored it, Bigger Than America flopped and it was to be another nine years before the band returned. Heaven 17 made some of the most pioneering, glorious and essential albums in electropop history. This was not one of them.