Men Without Hats’ latest record, Love in the Age of War, released this past May after an almost decade-long hiatus, is very much the band at its best. Hot off the heels of a tremendously successful tour, with an extremely well-received set at the world-famous South by Southwest (SXSW) music conference under their belts, the Hats’ renewed sense of vim and vigour is evident on this record.
These guys write danceable, uptempo, hooky songs that immediately make you smile. This band will always have a home in my record collection, if for no other reason than “Safety Dance” became one of the songs that was part of the definitive soundtrack of my high-school years. There is something strangely comforting for me about this band, and the sheer absurdity and strangeness of the lyrics and video for “Safety Dance” made me look at music in a different way. The problem with being Men Without Hats is that, once you’ve written a song like “Safety Dance” or “Pop Goes the World” – songs that have gone on to exceed your wildest expectations in terms of worldwide recognition and airplay, songs that have surpassed themselves by becoming bigger than you could ever have planned for; songs that have taken on a life of their own, digging their way into the mass consciousness of popular culture – the question then becomes: so where do you go from here? I mean seriously, when someone on the television show Scrubs makes on off-handed remark about “Safety Dance” and exits the scene while actually doing the Safety Dance, I think we can safely assume that everyone has heard this song.
So how can you possibly top that? The band’s answer, wisely, is that you don’t even try to, you just keep doing what you do well. You keep writing solid, hooky pop songs, and on Love in the Age of War, that’s exactly what they do. Ivan Doroschuk’s voice is still strong and consistent, and the melodies and hooks are vintage Men Without Hats, as Doroschuk has written every song on the record. And that emotional attachment and immediacy comes across in each song’s delivery. This is accessible, high-energy music, nostalgic and new-sounding at the same time. The band doesn’t take as many chances on Love in the Age of War as I would have liked, particularly after having been apart for 10 years, and granted, they aren’t necessarily breaking new ground here, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing either. There are certainly some very captivating and interesting moments on the album, and in some songs, the same trademark weirdness and irreverence they displayed so aptly in the video for “Safety Dance” is here in spades.
Tracks like “This War”, show off an otherworldly, road-weary quality to Ivan’s voice, giving the song a greater depth and resonance. A pop gem like “Close to the Sun”, with its deceptively simple chord progression, takes on a haunted, heart-worn feeling by the time we get to the sweeping, film-inspired chorus… this is a great “headphones” kind of song. “Devil Come Round” is the dirtiest-sounding track of the bunch, with an aggressive and pointed vocal delivery, and some pretty heavy backing guitars; it makes the perfect opener for the album, while the first single “Head Above Water” is trademark Men Without Hats. These songs absolutely capture the iconic New Wave sound the Hats are known for, but I feel like the record would have profited from some more aggressive bottom end, production-wise. Yet overall, it does have a consistent and cohesive sound, leaving the band with some breathing room in terms of letting Doroschuk’s melodies and hooks speak for themselves.
I’ll leave you with this: I was on vacation in Jamaica some years ago, and decided to head to a local bar with some friends to have a drink or 14. (Look, stop judging me, alright, I was on vacation!) Anyway, we walked in and noticed an older Jamaican gentlemen, guitar in hand, playing songs and taking requests from the crowd. Trust me when I tell you that there is nothing more surreal or immediately rewarding than to hear a 70-year-old Jamaican man named Lionel belt out a reggae version of Safety Dance. Granted, the 14 drinks may have helped the “happy-vibe” along a bit (I really like tiny paper umbrellas), but it was one of the most amazing, bizarre and extremely entertaining moments I’ve ever been a part of, and any band that can make that kind of connection with people, on the other side of the world no less, is worth giving a listen. So put on this album, play it as loud as you can, and pogo around your room like a maniac who’s just sucked down eight cans of Red Bull and a 32-oz jug of back-alley, high-fructose corn syrup. You’ll almost certainly feel dizzy, but trust me, you’ll be smiling the whole time.