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Howard Jones – In the Running (1992)
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To type these words pains me more deeply than words can say, but it’s altogether likely that many of you aren’t — urgh — old enough to remember when Howard Jones was a commercial force to be reckoned with. Indeed, you may scoff at the notion of a Top 10 artist who got his start backing up a mime, or the idea that anyone named Howard could ever be a rock star. This is understandable, but the charts don’t lie — between, say, ’84 and ’89, the synth-loving HoJo was all over the radio, thanks to the sticky pop hooks embedded in oh-so-sensitive singles such as “No One Is to Blame” and “Everlasting Love.”

Then came the ’90s, and the dawn of the Nirvanazoic Era, and all wimpy keyboard-toting singer/songwriters promptly died. Howard apparently missed the memo, however, and issued what was to be his major-label swan song, In the Running, in 1992. I hope I won’t be spoiling the ending for you if I tell you that the album was not a hit.

Elektra promoted In the Running as Jones’ “acoustic” record, but like most things labels say, it was only half true (at best). The album does find Jones using fewer synths than on previous releases, it’s true — but then again, he could hardly have used more, at least not without wiring them directly into his brain. It’s closer to the truth to say that this marks the spot where the Hoje made the jump from reasonably current-sounding pop artist to full-blown adult contemporary square. He was trying to age gracefully, in other words, but the timing couldn’t have been worse. Dig the video for the single, “Lift Me Up,” which brushed the Top 40’s nutsack:

Ahhh, synth horns. You’ve gotta love ’em. (Or hate them. Whichever.) You can’t knock “Lift Me Up” too harshly, though; as midtempo AC songs go, it really isn’t bad. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the only songs on the album with half a pulse. It’s difficult to understand why the slow, nearly seven-minute “Fallin’ Away” (download) was made the second song on the record — by the time it’s over, you’ve already forgotten what you were listening to at least twice, and feel as though you must be at least halfway through the album. But no, on and on it goes.

It isn’t all bad. Some bits are unintentionally comical — like the “bluesy” licks, courtesy of Dean Parks, that open “Exodus” (download) — but occasionally, as on “Two Souls” (download), Jones cooks up a suitably catchy melody.

Looking back, it’s easy to criticize Elektra’s decision to purge Jones from its roster after one flop — could he really have been selling that many fewer albums than Tracy Chapman? — but by most accounts, he seems to have done all right for himself as a post-airplay artist. He continues to perform, record, release albums by other artists, and generally wipe the floor with most other “Totally ’80s” package tour artists (witness his appearance on the otherwise wretched Hit Me Baby One More Time TV show a few years back). Unlike many of his contemporaries, he managed to pass through the bitter chill of irrelevancy and into the golden glow of nostalgia with his dignity intact, and his best songs are still well worth listening to. It’s just that none of them are on this shitty album.