September 21, 2015 Howard Jones’ Dream into Action a Classic 30 Years Later
To claim that Dream into Action is the best album of the English singer-songwriter Howard Jones is a bit unfair to the artist. If there was a valid, more realistic, and fairer reason it has received such accolades over the years is primarily because of the timing. For one, it was released in 1985, the commercial peak of what has now been regarded as New Wave/Synthpop music. Second, it was Jones’ second full-length offering, thus he had by then already gained momentum and enough popularity to be recognized by the scoop-hunting sector of the music media in those days. Yes, it contained some of Jones’ best songs; but to assess it objectively, in the context of Jones’s entire discography, Dream into Action is simply a continuation of that style of music that Jones has developed as early as his debut album and which he was able to maintain as his basic trademark sound up through the last one.
The point is, Jones has been releasing great works of music since 1983, when he unleashed his first single “New Song;” and Dream into Action is just one of these. Many listeners, fans, and critics fall into the folly of liking only an artist’s particular album that was released during the mainstream crest of this artist’s career or during the commercial peak of the genre the music of this artist may be classified into, and then dissing everything that came before and after it without even listening closely to the individual output. This is a shame! A true lover of music or a so-called fan does not limit himself with only the hits. He should be able to acknowledge sonic beauty without getting affected by chart positioning or the need for commercial reinforcement or media conditioning. Dream into Action is such a great album—no doubt about that—but so are the rest of its siblings, from 1984’s Human’s Lib, to 2015’s Engage. To inspect or re-inspect each of these albums in admiration for and respect to a proficient and prolific artist such as Jones is a right thing to do as a music fan. Because it is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year, Dream into Action is the appropriate starting point in assessing Jones’ corpus laboris.
Released in March 1985, Dream into Action opens with “Things Can Only Get Better,” whose short, slow dramatic keyboard melodies in the intro are effective in surprising the listener as the song suddenly transforms into a standard Synthpop stomper as soon as the first verse comes in. Following next is one of Jones’ most familiar tunes, the sunny and tropical-sounding “Life in One Day,” which features an interplay of whistle and acoustic-guitar plucks that serves as the song’s main riff. Based on its chorus, the choppy-rhythmed title track, “Dream into Action,” sounds like a sequel to “New Song,” from Jones’ first full-length. It is also one of the album’s most solid tracks, with its dominant-in-the-mix crawling slappy basslines.
The piano-led slow ballad, “No One Is to Blame” needs no further introduction, aside from claiming that it has certainly become a theme song for millions of lovers since it first hit the stores and the radio in the 1980s. In fact, a stripped-down piano-and-vocal only version that Jones usually plays during live performances is as effective as this studio version—just a proof of the bare beauty of this song. The lyrics with the piano accompaniment is sufficient; no elaborate instrumentation necessary.
“Look, Mama” is a straightforward midtempo that serves as a prelude, both lyrically and melodically, to the track that follows—the more upbeat and piano-charged “Assault and Battery,” whose highlight is the mini children’s choir in the mid-song interlude. Furthermore, a bit of New Age influences shine through in this song. The sound of the Greek-American composer Yanni comes to mind. Although, considering that Jones and Yanni arrived in the scene practically at the same time (both of them released their respective first albums in 1984), it could be only fairly assumed that this occasional music similarity was, at the least, born out of the inevitability that their lists of early musical influences contained some common artists from the previous decades.
“Automaton” showcases the use of the synthesizers; quite engaging with its pizzicatos, synth slapped-bass sound, and symphonic shots. Jones’ usually silky voice cracks in some corners in this one—a sign that even the soft-voiced Jones needs to express his anguish once in awhile. The relaxed mood of “Is There a Difference?” is oozing with Pop sensibilities, so Pop-sounding that the attentive listener can hear traces of Hall & Oates (“Kiss on My List,” 1980) and Huey Lewis & the News (“Do You Believe in Love?”, 1982).
“Elegy” is another beautiful ballad, powered by a crisp and glassy-sounding piano chandelier, a cello bed, and a very somber and soulful Jones. “Specialty” swims again into synthesizer-heavy territories, the type which Depeche Mode dove into in Construction Time Again; especially reminiscent are the songs “More than a Party” and “Two Minute Warning,” from this 1982 album. “Why Look for the Key?” and “Hunger for the Flesh,” on the other hand, have that jazzy Sophisti-Pop flavor. They will fit in seamlessly on a playlist with songs by Simply Red, Breathe, and Johnny Hates Jazz.
In “Bounce Right Back,” Jones was most likely experimenting by incorporating a bit of Rap in the verses. The emerging Hip-Hop music in the 1980s must have fascinated him, particularly the mild type in the veins of the likes of The Sugarhill Gang (“Rapper’s Delight,” 1979) and Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five (“The Message,” 1982). Finally, Dream into Action closes with “Like to Get to Know You Well,” whose rhythm and vibes hark to that of the beginning of the album—a brilliant way to wrap up a well-conceived package.
Anyone who has an ear for well-crafted, well-structured, and well-textured New Wave music that has undercurrents of Classical-influenced orchestration, synthesizer-oriented Pop’s sensibility and danceability, and introspective piano-based balladry should be able to recognize that all of Jones’ ten studio albums contain such characteristics. And Dream into Action stands out among the lot mainly because of the perfect timing of its original release in 1985, the heyday of the New Wave era and the pinnacle of Jones’s youthfulness and gravity-defying hairstyle. So, after taking the time to appreciate once again the songs in this album, take the next logical step revisit the one preceding it and everything that followed thereafter, and this time with eyes closed and with careful attention to musical details.