They say a well-rounded education is the key to success, and if that truly is the case, the my schooling is woefully incomplete when it comes to the subject of pop. That’s why we bring you “Popology,” the guide to modern radio-friendly stars as seen through the eyes of a guy who grew up on punk and metal. In case you missed previous installments, catch up with Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson, Taylor Swift and the Spice Girls here.
In this week’s installment, Savage Garden confuse at least one guy.
True story: The first time I heard a Savage Garden song was in the locker room at South Windsor High School before lacrosse practice on a chilly spring day in 1997. One of my teammates had control of the burned out stereo we kept in one of the empty lockers, and he cranked up a song on the radio that he thought was awesome. “These guys sound just like Nine Inch Nails!” he declared. “It rocks!” The song in question was Savage Garden’s breakout debut single “I Want You,” which does indeed have some distorted guitars and dance beats but sounds nothing like anything from Pretty Hate Machine. (Also, there’s that lyric about a “chicka-cherry-cola,” which Trent Reznor would never go near.) A few days later, we were having a team dinner and watching MTV at one of the captain’s houses, and the video for “I Want You” came on. “That’s what those guys look like?” my crestfallen teammate asked. “Oh man, that is lame.”
Not only does that story prove the power of music video (though in reality, most people probably had the opposite reaction as the lacrosse player), but it also points to the nature of radio in 1997. As we’ve discussed before, genres were splintered and there was no dominant sound across the airwaves (even Diddy-approved pop-rap was still about a year away from taking over), which allowed artists like Savage Garden to slip in undetected.
My teammate’s confusion over “I Want You” is wholly justified, as it does have the sort of polished edge that could have snuck onto modern rock radio in that era (really, there wasn’t much difference between “I Want You” and a latter-day Collective Soul single). But just as the video turned the tables, so did the rest of Savage Garden’s self-titled debut. “I Want You” was followed by the treacly ballad “Truly, Madly, Deeply” that became a school dance staple for the rest of my academic career. Subsequent albums yielded more confusion. Were they a simple pop duo? A mainstream-skewing dance combo? An extra-shiny rock band? It was sort of hard to tell then.
Actually, it’s still difficult to tell now. Stylistically, Savage Garden is all over the place. “I Want You” puts forward a sound that is mysterious, a little heavy and somewhat dangerous. But it’s followed by “Truly, Madly, Deeply” and a track called “To the Moon and Back” that could have easily been on that first Ricky Martin album (it even has a Spanish guitar break). That’s not to say it’s not good, but it trades in the whisper-fueled sexiness “I Want You” for a very straight-ahead delivery. Singer Darren Hayes has a competent instrument, but there’s nothing especially remarkable about it. (He made up for any shortcomings with dazzling eyes and floppy hair.)
Things shift back to a beat-centric place with “Tears of Pearls,” an awkwardly-named cascade of a techno track that spins a nice little Middle Eastern melody over a pulsating beat. Like “I Want You,” it blends together disparate elements that somehow still work, though it doesn’t have anything as endearing as that “chicka-cherry-cola” line. “Universe” is another faux-sexy ballad that is meat to be seductive but ends up sounding sort of cartoonish in its simplicity. Many of the pop acts from this era were much better off staying away from balladry, but that’s especially true for Savage Garden. When multi-instrumentalist Daniel Jones gets to play around with keyboard sounds and beats, the record stays lively and interesting. But when forced into cruise control, Hayes doesn’t have a strong enough voice to carry the proceedings very far.
“Carry On Dancing” is one of those speedier tracks, with an extremely dramatic electronic orchestra grinding out a fake string part and a chunky piano riff handling the low end. It has a real music theater vibe to it, like it could be an outtake from “Chess” (there’s something very “One Night in Bangkok” about it). “Violet” is not a cover of the song of Hole song with the same name but rather a swinging R&B track about “going inside your head” (whatever that means in this context). “Break Me Shake Me” is the most naked rock song on the entire album, opening with a simple plucked bassline and a pounding chorus (it’s rock the way Michael Jackson used to do rock). “A Thousand Words” follows suit, as though Savage Garden wanted to leave the door open to open for Silverchair or something.
Savage Garden ends with “Santa Monica,” a dull slog of an acousti-jam that ends the album on a much flatter note than it should (though it does contain the lyric “I can be your supermodel/ Or Norman Mailer/ And you wouldn’t know the difference,” which has to be the only reference to Mailer in pop music history). After listening to Savage Garden several times, I’m no closer to understanding what was going on with those kooky Australians than I was when I started. Savage Garden is not a bad album (it’s probably 50 percent of a good thing), but it’s perhaps the first album in the brief history of “Popology” that doesn’t actually mean anything more than a decade later. Savage Garden only released one other proper album (1999’s Affirmation, which yielded the hits “Crash and Burn” and “I Knew I Loved You”) and didn’t seems to have very much stickiness in the pop landscape beyond their time in the sun. But in that brief, weird window between trends (one I would argue we’re currently in now), Savage Garden slipped under the radar and confused at least one person into thinking they were Nine Inch Nails. Mission accomplished?