Trevor Horn, Echoes: Ancient & Modern review: Falls apart on the launchpad

The Buggles super-producer should have left his contacts list at home

To many pop fans, Trevor Horn will forever be the geeky Elton John-lookalike behind Buggles’ 1979 synth juggernaut “Video Killed the Radio Star”. That single kickstarted a long streak as studio svengali to artists such as Frankie Goes To Hollywood and ABC. He even turned prog rockers Yes into Top of the Pops stars with “Owner Of A Lonely Heart”.

Horn’s 80s work had a maximalist energy almost as over the top as his bug-eyed glasses. He strikes the opposite tone on Echoes: Ancient & Modern – a collection of muted covers where the producer reconnects with past collaborators such as Seal (for whom he midwifed the 1994 mega-ballad “Kiss from a Rose”).

Echoes is available now

The results are mixed. Echoes starts wonderfully, with a knockout deconstruction of Kendrick Lamar’s “Drank” by Tori Amos. She fillets the song – about alcoholism in Lamar’s extended family – and turns it into a thorny lament. Amos, who is often inaccurately referred to as America’s Kate Bush, has a soft, barbed voice that is the perfect foil for Lamar’s angst-splashed lyrics.

Horn brings us crashing down to earth when he ropes in Rick Astley for a karaoke go at “Owner of a Lonely Heart”. The original sailed through a supernova of cheese. Astley, perhaps mindful of his recent flirtation with artistic credibility, is reluctant to lean into the ridiculousness. It all falls apart on the launch pad.

The going from there is wildly uneven. Iggy Pop fares well on a stripped-down version of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus”. Crooner Jack Lukeman reworks Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” into a Nick Cave-style dirge. But Toyah Willcox and Robert Fripp’s attempt at Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax” lacks the subversive aggression of the original. It lands with a thud. As does Seal’s anaemic version of Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out”.

Horn recently turned 74. The weight of a lifetime of ups and downs, victories and reversals, comes through powerfully on a closing tilt at Roxy Music’s darkly dreamy “Avalon”, where the producer takes lead vocals.

It’s gorgeously mournful – a wonderful showcase for his empathic and vulnerable voice. Rather than firing up his contacts list, Horn might have fared better putting his plaintive singing front and centre across the rest of the project. Instead, he has released a covers album that never really justifies its existence.

Stream: “Drank”, “Personal Jesus”

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