The 1980’s remain a seminal period in the development of music. Sonic styles and trends came, and, much like the barbarian tribes that ran amok in the Dark Ages, abruptly ended, or were supplanted by something else entirely. The rise of the synth as the instrument of choice, and the cultural resonance and obsession with commercialized pop music led to an entirely new era in the worldwide music industry. Some musicians grew to become icons, destined to be hailed for decades to come, while others simply achieved one or a few (the lucky ones, that is) charting hits, then sputtered out, never to rise again.
This is the world in which Nicholas David Kershaw, better known as Nik Kershaw, was born and bred. It’s easy to look at just the musical achievements of the time, and candid shots from classic 80’s films and conclude (falsely) that entry costs and earnings were, respectively, low and plentiful. On the contrary, the 80’s were one of the most dangerous times for career musicians, as sonic trends were so mercurial, and subject to change. This didn’t stop Kershaw, however, and the little lad from Ipswich landed a charting hit with Wouldn’t It Be Good in 1984, which he followed up with his debut album, Human Racing.
Then, in late 1984, Nik Kershaw released what would become one of his (if not THE) most beloved albums, The Riddle. The album itself has a good weight to it, ranging in at 10 tracks, however, it seems to lack a center of gravity. The opener, Don Quixote, is an 80’s pop fanfare of the highest order, combining basic synth rhythms with artificial orchestra hits, and a Latin-esque counter melody. It hits intensely, and is highly infectious. However, the followup, Know How, seems to cut the pace entirely, taking a driving, exciting beginning, and morphing it into more of a Sunday afternoon stroll. Though this is not an altogether bad thing, when combined with the other factors such as the not quite overwhelming lyrics,”I’ve got my orders from the top, and I’ll stand til I drop”, and the somewhat lengthy and repetitious chorus, it’s not a strong sequel to Don Quixote. The next couple of tracks, You Might and Wild Horses, go by without much notice, as the former seems to fit easily into an 80’s action motion picture, and the latter shows an incredibly naive Kershaw struck by wanderlust.
However, all this is redeemed by Easy, which is most likely the most creative, and daring song on the album. The lead in exchanges synth hits for a freeform bass rhythm, with a descending minor chord progression, that forms the backbone of the song. It removes the specter of predictability that haunts much of The Riddle, and instead takes a bold step in progressive tendencies. We find complex synth arrangements, and Kershaw’s voice even seems to dwell spaciously within the track: much like a tree given enough room to grow comfortably in a given space, Kershaw’s vocals seem confident and complement the sonic elements of the track, but are also objectively stunning, i.e. the mid-song scatting session and a higher range on average.
The title track is also impressive as well: the flute-like synth melodies and general marching percussion rhythm work wonders, and The Riddle feels not only catchy, but also takes on it’s own inertia. But alas, bad track listing plague this album, and the following tracks, City of Angels and Roses, bring down the pace once again. Perhaps if the title track followed up a string of the slower numbers, there would be more flow, but the point is moot. Wide Boy has it’s own canter and jubilance, while album closer Save the Whale is a black sheep, using complex movements and rhythms, but fits perfectly as a finale.
The reissue includes several of Kershaw’s live performances, and a few extra tracks, of both original material, and reworkings of tracks from The Riddle. Overall, Kershaw’s talent is self evident, but poor tracklisting really hampers the album, to the point where it makes the entire work feel, as stated earlier, like it lacks a center of gravity.