The Psychedelic Furs’ eponymous 1980 debut begins with “India,” a six minute song that opens with a two minute ambient intro. This sets up an album full of both beauty and darkness. For instance, to convey the sadness and disarray at the heart of album highlight “Sister Europe,” Richard Butler got drunk before singing it, a beautiful instance of musical method acting.
Butler’s vocals are reminiscent of John Lydon and inevitably meant the band would be compared to Sex Pistols. However, while Butler was often just as sarcastic and scornful as Lydon, he was also more empathetic. In a way, this emotional resonance ensured that the Furs never released as consistent an album as Never Mind the Bollocks—it’s easier to release a burst-of-energy punk record when you don’t have all those pesky feelings to deal with. But the lack of a masterpiece also ensured that the Furs could survive—and grow—as a band for longer. So the next year, they followed up their debut with 1981’s Talk Talk Talk, an album that found them in the middle between the post-punk of their debut album and the new wave of 1982’s Todd Rundgren-produced Forever Now.
In a way, Talk Talk Talk sounds like the ‘70s transitioning into the ‘80s. In the year that later brought us the debut album of Duran Duran and The Human League’s Dare, there was still some awkwardness in attempting to find a voice for the new era. Talk Talk Talk hints at the pop sound that would come to define new wave and college rock in the 1980s while also reflecting the difficulty of finding that sound. A song like “Pretty in Pink,” for instance, reflects this mixture of forward and backward-thinking. It’s largely dependent on its influences, based entirely around the “Sweet Jane” riff. At the same time, it hints at Liz Phair’s “Fuck and Run,” which would later take both the melody and theme and run with them. The Psychedelic Furs were a band that could have easily been typical, but they managed to become innovators through skillful songwriting and performing, as well as their ability to change when necessary.
At its most punk rock, the album features songs like “Mr. Jones” and (especially) “Dumb Waiters,” in which the music matches Butler’s scoffing vocals to create a noisy, toned-down Sex Pistols sound: “She has got in for me/Yeah I mean it honestly/She’s so mean.” But then “Dumb Waiters” is followed by “She is Mine,” a gorgeous, saxophone-driven song in which Butler sings with complete sincerity, even if the words themselves aren’t quite as sincere.
Talk Talk Talk is all about combinations, mixtures of things that aren’t supposed to mix well. Nastiness and emotional honesty, darkness and beauty, and it’s because of these mixtures that the album bridges two eras so beautifully. But at the same time, this does ensure that the album is more uneven than the releases that came before and after it. After a nearly flawless first side, the second half of the album fails to live up to it, with only the completely sardonic “I Wanna Sleep with You” equaling what came before it. This isn’t particularly surprising, considering that the band never really released amazing albums. But The Psychedelic Furs and Forever Now at least spread the good stuff out, whereas Talk Talk Talk lumps it all together, making the album lose momentum, as opposed to just being hit-or-miss.
Nevertheless, what works about Talk Talk Talk still sounds as fresh as ever. Today, 35 years after the album’s release, the band’s influence on college rock of the era, as well as modern alternative music, can’t be understated. The Psychedelic Furs showed that you can mix seeming contradictions without actually being contradictory to who you are, and this is best seen on their sophomore album.