In the first few years of the 1980’s, the record racks were glutted with a ton of new wave albums by record companies looking to sign the next Cars or Blondie. Most of them ended up becoming future music-trivia question answers but a few managed to score a glittering, synth-y hit or two that would live on via 1980’s nights at clubs and compilation albums. Kim Wilde was one of the lucky ones thanks to her hit “Kids In America.” It lit up the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and has been covered more than once.
“Kids In America” is the centerpiece of Kim Wilde and it remains one of the great genre-defining new wave singles. It fades in on a wave of throbbing, vaguely menacing programmed synths before blossoming into an intense rock backing that flawlessly blends jerky, energetic post-punk guitar stylings with the sort of sleek electronics that Gary Numan or The Human League were known for. The lyrics paint a portrait of kids filled with an existential dread of the sprawling suburbia that surrounds them as they look for kicks and rely on music to pull them through. Wilde croons the lyrics in a detached baby-doll style, acting as an unsmiling teen dream for the alienated, and her approach fits the song to a ‘t.’ Simply put, it’s new wave perfection.
However, Wilde is much more than a one-hit wonder. Though she only scored one other big hit here – a Stock Aitken Waterman-style reworking of the Supremes chestnut “You Keep Me Hanging On” – she managed to maintain a hitmaking profile in Europe throughout the 1980’s. Those singles eventually drifted into a more standardized 1980’s Euro-dance-pop but her early singles are pure new wave with a dark, offbeat edge. The tendencies of those early singles also carried over to their parent albums – and her self-titled debut is one of the best albums to emerge from the early 1980’s new wave rush.
For starters, Kim Wilde is a smooth, skillfully paced album where each carefully-crafted tune breezes through your ear into your subconscious, one right after the other. Everything here sounds like it could have been an a-side or b-side on a single and there is no throwaway filler. Better yet, the production and the songwriting weave the occasional different style into the basic synth-plus-guitar-riffs new wave approach: the album features traces of reggae (“Everything We Know”), ska (“2-6-5-8-0”) and even AOR-style balladry (“You’ll Never Be So Wrong”). It’s a family affair – dad Marty produced and co-wrote most the songs with brother Rikki – and it’s very savvy about the market it caters to.
More importantly, Kim Wilde has an unusual personality that distinguishes it from the pack. Once you look past the hook-filled melodies, you will discover that the lyrics often have unusual themes: “Water On Glass” is about a real-life medical condition where the afflicted constantly hear a sound in their heads and the narrative of “Tuning In, Tuning Out” revolves around the metaphysical concept that sound waves never die. Elsewhere, the album traffics in the angst of misunderstood teens – not just “Kids In America” but also “Our Town” and “Young Heroes” – but throws out one more curveball in the form of “2-6-5-8-0,” a portrait of a carefree escort girl that bypasses social commentary for cheeky humor.
The final touch is provided by the vocals of the titular singer. She is capable of piercing drama – the intense highs of the chorus on “You’ll Never Be So Wrong,” the primal-shout of the title that punctuates “Falling Out” – but she doesn’t sound like she’s straining for effect. She can belt it out when the song demands it (“Young Heroes”) but is just as skilled at the numbers that require a lighter delivery (“Everything We Know,” which is perhaps the highlight of Kim Wilde in terms of vocals). Best of all, whatever she sings is suffused with a melodic moodiness that suits the often brooding tone of the lyrics. She’s instantly convincing and sells the album’s melancholy-bordering-on-edgy persona nicely.
In short, this is a winner for any fan of new wave sounds. It has been a big favorite of Your Humble Reviewer’s since childhood and, though styles have changed several times over since it was first committed to vinyl, it remains a potent slab of moody-teenager fun.
(CD Notes: the recent Cherry Pop reissue is the definitive version of this album, offering up a punchy remastering of the songs plus an additional three tracks (a single version of “Water On Glass” and two album-only b-sides that are almost as good as what’s on the album itself). Better yet, the package includes a great set of liner notes that include pictures of different single sleeves and musings on each the tunes by Kim, Marty and Ricky. Whether you’re a fan or just curious, this is the way to hear this album.)