Gary Numan: Synthesizing out of depression
New wave progenitor mends splintered mind with 20th LP
One would assume that any major artist hitting the 20-album, 30-year mark of his or her career would have a routine nailed down by now. Maybe write, record, and release an album every other year or so, and tour new material bookended by older hits along the way. That might have been the direction seminal synth-rock and new wave pioneer Gary Numan was headed, but the road to his 20th studio LP, Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind), was riddled with speed bumps.
Since the arrival of 2006's bleak and frigid album, Jagged, Numan's personal and creative moors were completely dissolved, leading to a near-six-year bout of writer's block. "I developed depression and started taking medication for that," Numan says. "My wife had bad postpartum depression, and she was in terrible shape from that. Between the two of us we had all kinds of issues. It was all pretty horrible. Put simply, I felt broken."
Although, with a bit of luck and a long-intended move from his native England to Los Angeles, Numan found himself inspired by his new digs. "Everything felt so exciting and uplifting," he says." I threw myself into writing, and was working every day — song after song. I didn't have any doubts about it. Normally I'm very critical but I was so happy — the album was finished in the blink of an eye."
The resulting 12 songs that make up Splinter stand as a testament to Numan's newfound creative freedom while cementing the signature orchestral synth-rock he's perfected along the way. Creative apprehensions and personal demons are both processed and destroyed, taking shape with clean, dark pop motifs.
The tribulations that Numan has overcome are pervasive throughout Splinter, as writing each of the songs was the largest part of quelling the deeply rooted personal problems that were weighing him down. "In the course of writing about it, you have to think about it very deeply," Numan says. "If you want it to be accurate, you have to find the right phrases and ways to explain it. Even though you're alone in a room, you are also going through it over and over, examining it in great detail, almost like you're going through it. Writing the album was the final massive part of getting better."
Opening track "I am Dust" introduces the album's leering presence and teeth-grinding delivery, plowing through the assault of guitar- and synth-driven noise. The track lumbers along like a malfunctioning machine, slowly picking up the pace while following a crooked and sinister course. Each lyrical confession — unsettling in its terse elegance — plays toward Numan's tried-and-true obsession with dystopian futures and technological anxiety.
Numan's softer side peeks through the fog from time to time as well. "The Calling," a mid-album tune, is an extended interlude of sorts, foregoing the overdriven synth chords for an orchestral mediation. The song's first half, permeated with a distant but sustained synth tone, soundtracks the solemn contemplations: "You don't hear me. You don't see me. You don't even know I'm alive, so why do you call me?" As the dreadful shroud builds with shards of synth noise and stabbed percussion, the song eventually collapses into a synthetic symphony. The somber scene provides some of Splinter's most tender moments while highlighting some artistic leaps for Numan.
Most notably, "The Calling" features a sampled bit of sung Farsi, revealing Numan's obsession with Eastern melodies and modes. "I'd been fascinated by Eastern music for a long time and put a little more thought into it for Splinter," he says. "I was able to start crossing it over into my own material in an accurate way. Then we just tried adding it into the album to see if it had the right feel to it."
This vulnerability lasts only a moment, though, as "The Calling" soon dissolves away and sets the stage for the nihilistic grimace of the album's title track. The song's production relies even less on overpowering noise for Numan's reserved monologue on the faulty perception of human kindness, singing, "I don't believe in the goodness of people like me. I believe everything bleeds from the fib of man."
Now back on track with a full world tour and free-flowing sense of creative exaltation, an admittedly chipper Numan continues his legacy as the godfather of robotic synthesizer-based rock, albeit with a few scars in the icy veneer.