With OMD’s re-emergence and renewed interest in Sheffield compatriots Heaven 17, the timing seems right for a new album from The Human League. Lead singer Philip Oakey’s been relatively busy, dueting on both Pet Shop Boys’ This Used to Be the Future and with Little Boots in 2009. So, having only done short tours since 2001’s criminally overlooked Secrets, what does the band David Bowie described as "the sound of the future" sound like today; in the future, essentially?
Apparently little has changed: a characteristically manifesto-like title, nocturnal themes (Into the Night, Sky, Night People) and Oakey exchanging call/response vocals with Susan Sulley and Joanne Catherall across the throbbing crunch of electronics. They swing between Being Boiled and Heart Like a Wheel within every song, while seldom matching those heights.
But even latter-day League albums produced a stand-out track, a trend continued here with Never Let Me Go: a pop song The Saturdays would be proud of. Oakey's voice bubbling beneath Sulley’s lead vocal will wrongfoot fans expecting a return to the League’s earlier sound. It’s part of a strong opening trio: as pioneers of the remix album (check out 1982’s Love and Dancing), the crisp, vaguely acid synth line of Night People is cries out for an instrumental. But things soon wobble. Oakey provoked the dreaded Marmite phrase before it was coined, but he’s never so thoroughly explored the fine line between droll and dour.
The future apparently annoys him; Breaking the Chains has a light touch, but Privilege is like listening to a cabbie supporting the losing team, while on Get Together, Oakey just sounds miserable. Nonetheless, elsewhere it’s hard not to see a wry smile behind the wisdom of "keep your cornflakes in the freezer".
Their avoidance of guitars, drums or strings is admirable, although Single Minded uses machines to write a song only to discover they’re not plugged in. It’s a track that will send detractors of electronica into spasms of told-you-so satisfaction.
At times Credo sounds like The Human League of today trying to be The Human League of the past, which makes for uncomfortable listening. That said, it’s probably still better than it has any right to be, given the time between the group’s hits and their missing out on chart positions nowadays. They remain more influential than influenced, but this album adds little to their reputation. Although 10 years old itself, Secrets is a far stronger starting point for anyone interested in the 21st century phase of this classic band’s career.