'90s MOR merchants Savage Garden might not have been known for their daring invention, but since their 2001 split, frontman Darren Hayes has become one of pop's most unexpected mavericks, flirting with '80s electro years before anyone had even heard of the term "nu-synth" on The Tension & the Spark, and appearing to compete with the most sel...
'90s MOR merchants Savage Garden might not have been known for their daring invention, but since their 2001 split, frontman Darren Hayes has become one of pop's most unexpected mavericks, flirting with '80s electro years before anyone had even heard of the term "nu-synth" on The Tension & the Spark, and appearing to compete with the most self-indulgent of prog rock acts on the 25-track double album, This Delicate Thing We've Made. However, perhaps tired of making bold artistic statements, only for a fraction of die-hard fans to take any notice, his fourth record, Secret Codes & Battleships is arguably his most commercial since 2002 debut Spin. There's still an array of interesting musical touches, from the Middle Eastern chanting on the cinematic balladry of close "The Siren's Call," to the burst of widescreen Sigur Rós-esque post-rock which interrupts the sweeping synth pop of "Bloodstained Heart," to the twinkling music boxes which kickstart the slow-burning, U2-inspired opener "Taken by the Sea." But with producer Carl Falk (Backstreet Boys, Nicole Scherzinger) on board, the majority of its 13 tracks come equipped with a pop sensibility that has been largely absent from his recent output. Lead single "Talk Talk Talk," a club-friendly fusion of twisted house riffs and pulsing electro beats, is his most mainstream single in nearly a decade; "Black Out the Sun" is a gorgeously yearning attempt at string-soaked R&B which shows that Hayes' trademark falsetto can still pack an emotional punch: while the inventive "God Walking Into the Rain" starts out like a Madonna tribute with its William Orbit-influenced electronica and "Like a Prayer"-ish gospel backing vocals, before settling into a shimmering, synth-led slice of melodrama packed with bluesy guitar hooks and an unashamedly retro-hair metal solo. Admittedly, it's a record which takes a while to get going, with the '80s-inspired double-whammy of "Don't Give Up" and "Nearly Love" echoing the more forgettable moments of Savage Garden's brief but impactful career. Nevertheless, it's an impressive feat that on album which wad conceived way back in 2007, they're the only two tracks which sound slightly stale. It remains to be seen whether Hayes is a little too late to win back the millions of fans who worshipped his previous wedding dance favorites, but by limiting his experimental tendencies and focusing on the kind of intelligent synth pop he does best, he's given himself a fighting chance. ~ Jon O'Brien