Josh Rouse is no stranger to nostalgia. He’s covered numerous songs by 1980s bands in concert and he did a whole album inspired by the sounds of the early 1970s called 1972. On his latest, Love in the Modern Age, he revisits the 80s. More specifically, the synthesizer driven introspective pop of that decade exemplified by bands such as The Blue Nile, Prefab Sprout and The Cure. The ghost of Leonard Cohen’s early 80s output also hangs over these tracks, especially the title song (replete with a Cohen-esque dry vocal delivery and a chorus of the type of female backing singers favored so often by Cohen). “I’m Your Man” even goes as far as to borrow its title from one of Cohen’s best known songs.
There was a self-conscious modernity which ran through the 80s, with those futuristic synths and drum machines, and with computers and video games coming into their own. And, though, Rouse is looking back to those sounds of yesteryear, there’s an irony in the title in that it was 30-odd years ago. There’s nothing modern about this music in 2018. To his credit, Rouse is able to pull off this record without it coming across like a gimmick, even if the cover shot shows him bathed in a purple and blue glow that suggests a mall video game arcade while he poses in Cory Hart “I Wear My Sunglasses at Night” mode.
He’s enough of a skilled songwriter that he delivers an engaging set of songs and while some (“Businessman”, “Ordinary People, Ordinary Lives”) don’t sound as timeless as others in his catalog, that’s to some degree due to the retro production and instrumentation. What keeps the album successful is that there’s not a strict adherence to a 1980s sound, and Rouse can’t help sounding like himself (which is a good thing). He’s always had his own unique approach to his art and it comes through here in these songs about relationships, which has always been his stock in trade. “Salton Sea,” “Tropic Moon,” “Women and the Wind” and “There Was a Time” could, with a minimum of reworking, fit easily onto one of his other albums.
That closing track, “There Was a Time”, is a song of leaving behind the past and moving on – an interesting (and even a little odd) way to end an album that intentionally looked to the past. A very Wilco-esque cathartic guitar solo, the only time the album really lets loose musically, wraps up the song and the album. Perhaps Rouse is, either intentionally or unintentionally, assuring us that this 80s homage is only temporary.
In the end, Love in the Modern Age comes across as it was no doubt intended: the work of an artist trying something different to challenge himself and to keep his fans interested. Paradoxically, it accomplishes all that, injecting a freshness to his music that seemed to be waning on his last couple of releases.