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Released in 1984, Alphaville's debut album Forever Young is a bit special; delivering a relentless succession of pop songs so consistently good, it plays like a 'best of'. So slick, fun and euphoric are the majority of the songs that it requires extended listening before many of the subtler production elements and articulate lyrics come to light. The West German synthpop trio, headed by Marian Gold (vocals), Bernhard Lloyd (keyboards) and Frank Mertens (keyboards), didn't let a terminally flawed (even by eighties standards) dress sense get in the way of them attaining pop music's holy grail; simultaneously achieving radio-friendly immediacy, consistency and substance.
"A Victory of Love" opens things in style with a simple, stark intro laying the foundation for an ominous yet stirring synth classic. In tandem, the vocals and instrumentation build from a low, barely-audible thrum to a flourishing, theatrical finale. The tracks that don't scream 'instant-hit' also come good in time, revealing the variety of the music and the depth of the Gold's musings, many of which are easily overlooked due to the sheer accessibility of the songs.
"Summer In Berlin" glides on a dreamy, harp-like melody, reprising the understated vocal delivery of the opener. Echoing Joy Division's "Love will Tear Us Apart" with pretty instrumentation sitting atop a darker message, in this instance the discontent is masked in oblique references. The song touches briefly upon an East German uprising of 1953 ("you've got a reservation, for the 17th of June"), the first of several barbs levelled at the band's homeland. Gold's light delivery belies an unsettling undercurrent that comes to light in the chorus's refrain: "Summer in Berlin, it's alright/day feels so tired from the lead in the air and the fire in the skies". "To Germany With Love" goes a step further. Propelled by a funky, elastic bassline, the slight lack of clarity in the vocals mars what is lyrically a standout track. Written when Germany was still a segregated nation, it considers a "war between the wars" in which the country fails to escape its troubled past. In a final, Kubrickian flourish, the song aligns high-art with Germany's ills, blending Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" with the final beats of the song; an effect Alphaville later retraced on their 1994 track "Beethoven". The choruses are just as accomplished and driven as on the more positive songs, and the panicky, wailing synth solos lend them a distinctive and catchy sound. Alphaville have a knack for chiselling even the heaviest of topics into enjoyable pop songs, and this bodes well for the rest of the album.
Elsewhere, historical and political traumas are cast aside, lending the remainder of the album a more elated tone, with Gold's grandiose delivery and effective, varied instrumentation coming to the fore. The band's sole UK top ten hit, "Big In Japan", impresses with its intro of supersonic synths and an aptly-oriental-flavour to its keyboard refrain, whilst "Fallen Angel" is a joyous four minutes of fun which, despite the occasional lyrical oddity ("she's an investigator/she's like an elevator"), is a real burst of sunshine.
"Forever Young", the solitary ballad on the record, is fantastic. Before Jay-Z rapped over the best bits and got some guy to repeat a few lines of the chorus on "Young Forever", there was once an outstanding power-ballad... Luckily, it's here in all its glory. A slow 'n' sombre number that's largely at odds with the speedy tempo of the rest of the album, but rather than knocking it off-kilter, it merely reinforces how intricate the production is, allowing no track to go to waste. It's the power of Gold's wrenching vocals that really make the song, whilst anthemic lines ("let us die young or let us live forever") mean its easy to see why this Prom-Classic stands out.
"In The Mood" marks the album's one slight lull, seeming uncharacteristically flat instrumentally. It chugs along at a smart enough pace and offers up another sprightly chorus, but lacks a spark of creativity apparent in the other songs, and ends up feeling a touch derivative. Still, the New Romantic-style, spoken-serenade is cheesy fun. Where most debut albums struggle is in sight of the finish, having already wheeled out the biggest songs. Remarkably, the opposite seems occur with Forever Young, which goes up another gear for its final three tracks.
"Sounds Like A Melody" is arguably the record's crowning glory. Lyrics in this instance seem incidental as the incredibly distinctive, hypnotic synths take centre stage, rolling towards a chorus where the full range of Marian Gold's voice can be appreciated in all its splendour. It culminates in a phenomenal two-minute outro which benefits from a soaring string accompaniment from Deutsche Opera, and is truly stunning. How do you follow that? With something a little different, in this case "Lies"; another supremely catchy ditty built on dainty piano chops. A song that tells of the disposable nature of stars, Gold works his magic again, machine-gunning through refrains that are interchangeably witty and ironic: "make a make up in a foolish style/telling the truth, by making a big lie" and "a lot of money is at stake/this is a hit, and that's a fake" among two of the highlights.
Things are brought to a close by "The Jet Set". Rather oddly, given that it has all the hallmarks of an opener; Gold's yelp of "get ready for the show!" precedes an energetic cascade of drums and frantic, poppy synths that inevitably provide the opening to many an Alphaville live show. An unadulterated ode to fun and eighties excesses, it's the antithesis of the oft-abused blueprint that dictates a stripped ballad or low-key bit of filler should bring such a record to a close. Marrying a high-octane chorus with a foot-tapping bridge that's fairly impossible not to sing along with, the song intermittently jumps between silly and playful lyrics. It's bags of fun, ideal single material, and a fantastically cheery way to finish.
Forever Young's got a bit of everything; hum-along airplay-friendly pop tracks, slow-burners with a myriad of clever touches, elaborate instrumentation, and amidst a catalogue of superbly structured choruses, smart harmonies and bridges, the album pauses for breath just once in the middle for its one, superlative ballad. Marian Gold's vocals may be a turn off to those who prefer their music cooler and a little more restrained, but in the context of a band so completely committed to a stadium-pop ethic, it proves a real strength. One of the best albums of its era, and Alphaville's finest work.
Sounds Like A Melody; Forever Young; The Jet Set; A Victory Of Love; Fallen Angel; Lies
To Germany With Love:
"Let's build a nightmare-nation, learn and work as never yet/that this cold new generation faith in its own fears beget"
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Victory Of Love
2 Summer In Berlin
3 Big In Japan
4 To Germany With Love
5 Fallen Angel
6 Forever Young
7 In The Mood
8 Sounds Like A Melody
10 Jet Set