Early in the second paragraph of Pitchfork newcomer Alfred Soto’s review of these two Cars reissues he manages to land a tricky one-two punch, dissing classic rock grump Robert Christgau and nailing the populist appeal of the band in one deft sweep.
“In that pre-MTV era, the Cars were an ideal first vehicle—fleet and meaningless, sure, in Robert Christgau’s ambivalent judgment, but also educational, for their meaningless was the point.”
In his handful of Fork reviews to date, Soto has staked out a comfortable niche delving deep into glossy, caged-drum-80s mega-albums to locate the points where mass appeal positioning and artistry intersect. His December 2017 deep dive into INXS’ Kick reissue managed to stir up a groundswell of late-breaking respect for an album that sold ten million copies in its day but never quite gained the Bushwick throwback resurgence bump afforded other blockbusters of its day. Soto also finally treated George Michael to the full-tilt songwriter appreciation he always deserved but seldom received. Many of us were hoping for a revisit on similarly underrated songsmith Boy George next, but instead we get The Cars, which is understandable since the big reissue treatment opens up a loophole for Pitchfork to review classic records on a day other than Saturday.
The interesting thing about Soto taking on The Cars is that Rick Ocasek has already gotten his due amongst the hip set with his “geek before it was chic” style sense and economical new wave hooks. He may be sticking to his forte overall, but this subtle difference makes this double bill Soto review a different beast entirely. It’s one he pulls off admirably.
Soto is a deft critical stylist great at setting up backgrounds that never threaten to overpower the review. Right from the start he nails the setting: New wave and disco were flirting with one another in a dismal pre-MTV landscape dominated by bearded, stadium-rocking AOR behemoths. From this pre-dawn silence emerge The Cars with their ringing keys, anglo vibes, and clear-as-a-bell radio glory singles that were disposable yet proved to be immortal. He also manages to immediately pinpoint the source for their mass popularity, painting in just 14 words what a less-skilled critic would have stumbled on for paragraphs to illustrate:
“The Cars bridged rock’s swelling boomer gerontocracy and the kids besotted with power pop.”
Soto gains extra points here for pointing out that those patented Cars harmonies weren’t all that far off from The Eagles:
“A cyborgian distortion of 10cc and the Eagles. Elliot Easton’s riffs? The Edgar Winter Group might’ve played them.”
Although Shake It Up and Heartbreak City were undoubtedly the albums that switched on the megastar headlamps for The Cars, the fact remains that these records were rather uneven. This is a fact Soto acknowledges from the start yet still manages to hit upon the essential elements that made them so beloved to the mass populace and classic rock radio stations forevermore. Extra praise is warranted for the Benjamin Orr shoutout for the “Drive” lead vocals, which were indeed prettier than Ocasek’s and tantalize with “what may have been” solo career possibilities. It’s interesting to find out that “Just What I Needed” was NOT a top ten banger and that it took “Shake It Up” to really break them into the mainstream. Soto is masterful at sprinkling in these types of jarring facts across his reviews, as opposed to unloading them from the start or using them as tools to make some larger point, adding rich layers of density to his straight-forward critical style.
One wouldn’t necessarily describe The Cars as “steely” on first thought, more like goofballs with hooks for days, but Soto makes a great case for it by pointing out the contractual obligation aspects of Shake It Up where only “I’m not The One” showed anything close to a tinge of emotion.
When delving into the more diverse Heartbeat City, Soto wisely ties in Ocasek’s side gig producing bands much spikier and off-kilter than his day job (Bad Brains, Suicide), noting how these influences clash magnificently with Mutt Lange’s widescreen Def Leppard punch-ins to spark a sound “as subtle as a gas fire and as loud a thermonuclear explosion.” Rightly described by Soto as a “mini-Thriller”, this record sparked five hit singles and indoctrined Ocasek’s famine-victim cheekbones into the ascendant early MTV slipstream. Soto’s joke about the ever-evil Bob Geldof using “Drive” to soundtrack suffering Ethiopian children in Live Aid commercials is the type of natural gold that tips the scales from “decent review” to “classic review”.
Refreshingly bereft of hyperbole, Soto isn’t afraid to poke holes in his mini-Thriller, singling out Lange’s dated knob-twiddling touches and the call-and-response Okasek/Orr annoyances that wash out the album’s second half. This is an area where Soto has always excelled, heaping well-deserved respect onto classics while not letting them get away with their faults. It’s a trait that many critics, including the one writing this, should certainly take note of.
In giving Shake It Up and Heartbeat City a 6.9 and a 7.5 respectively, Soto nails the perfect scores to these massively popular and influential shining monuments that nonetheless suffered from some very real flaws in their architectures.
Unlike critical contemporaries of the Evan Rytlewski ilk who delight in dragging out decades-old records and holding them up to the harsh light of today’s suffocating think-piece culture, Soto seems to grasp that changing societal norms don’t automatically cast older works of art into the “problematic” dustbin.
“Singer-guitarist Ric Ocasek wrote hooky songs about girls on hoods: dumb but not stupid, sexist but not offensive. They were touring vets whose stunted idea of female sexuality—and men’s, too—resonated with their teenaged fans.”
It would be wise to leave it at that, and Soto chooses the wise path here, acknowledging without explicitly stating that good old-fashioned rock/pop songs about getting laid will never quite go out of style.
“Those who don’t know their history are condemned to choke on the exhaust fumes of progress—or regression. It was hard to tell where the Cars stood.”
With this elegant closing line, Alfred Soto not only captures the tricky line The Cars cat-walked in their prime but also elevates himself into the pantheon of stand-out music critics who’ve fused poetry and philosophy with their hardline critiques.
We look greatly forward to the surely impending Culture Club review.